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The flip, and the flipped: leaving materialism behind. An interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal.

The flip, and the flipped: leaving materialism behind. An interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal.

Reading | Philosophy

Hans Busstra | 2021-04-30

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Hans Busstra is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. In collaboration with Essentia Foundation he is doing research on a new documentary that will explore idealism as a potential new worldview replacing materialism. In this series of articles, and a podcast series that will be published later this year, he shares the highlights of his research conversations with scientists, scholars and experts.

A lot gets lost when making a documentary. During research you usually speak to dozens of experts who will give you great insights into a subject. But researching, filming and editing a documentary film is a merciless ‘kill your darlings’ process: only a fraction of all quotes recorded make it to the final edit of your documentary. Since the project I’m currently working on—a documentary on idealism—has such depth to it, I decided it’s worthwhile to share all gems found along the way.

What one can only hope for during the research of a complex topic is to encounter the right guide—as a storyteller I would say ‘sage’—who can help you navigate the unknown waters. I’m grateful to have stumbled on someone who exactly fits this profile: Jeffrey Kripal.

Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. My first acquaintance with Kripal’s work was through his book ‘The Flip’,

an essay—as Kripal calls it himself—in which Kripal makes a case to open our eyes for dazzling anomalies that contradict our materialist-reductionist worldview. Those who do, risk to ‘flip’.

Kripal describes flipped scientists, how they make sense of the world after leaving behind the mainstream paradigm of materialism and he goes on to stimulate the reader to explore some of these alternative worldviews for themselves. His book has received numerous positive reviews, and the well respected journalist Michael Pollan, who himself has written on the mystery of the mind, called it “mindblowing”.


How do you define materialism, and what are your objections to it?

The fundamental premise of materialism is that there’s this thing called matter, and that only it is real, and that any kind of subjective form of awareness or consciousness, therefore, must be a product of that material base. But what’s so extraordinary is this. If you talk to neuroscientists today, they’re the first people to say something like: ‘We don’t have a clue how you get from warm brain matter to this 3D movie that you and I are in right now. We don’t even have a beginning. We can’t even imagine that in principle.” It’s not like, “We have a model, and we just need to tinker with it for a few more decades.” It’s more like, “No, we don’t even have a beginning to that.”


Then, some of these scientists ‘flip’, what do you mean exactly by this term?

Most academics and intellectuals in general are trained in their education to think that materialism is the truth of things, that there is fundamentally matter, that the world is fundamentally material, and that all mind or consciousness is a kind of a temporary byproduct of material processes. A flip occurs when one of these trained intellectuals or professionals has some kind of extraordinary experience and “flips,” in the sense that they realize that consciousness or mind might actually be fundamental or primary in the material world. It is not that they’re now denying material reality. It’s rather that they’re now seeing the fundamental nature of consciousness or mind, and they no longer see it as just a byproduct of the material world. They understand that things are infinitely more complex and rich, and truly fantastic.


So ‘the flip’ then, is the result of an experience, rather than the result of intellectual thought?

I think the mistake that we’re making today and certainly in our academic culture is that we confuse consciousness with thinking. We confuse consciousness with cognition, to be more technical about it. These flip states have little, if anything, to do with thought. They’re not about thinking anything. They’re about the thinker. They’re about realizing that there’s a thinker behind all the thoughts.


This seems to go against the fundamentals of our scientific worldview, that takes rational thinking as its departure point… 

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. That’s usually translated as ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but it could just as well have meant for Descartes something like ‘I am conscious, therefore I am.’ If we identify consciousness with thinking, then, of course, when the brain deteriorates or dies and thought is no longer possible, consciousness cannot be possible. That is clearly where we’re at as a secular scientistic culture. We just (naively) equate consciousness with the brain, and we equate consciousness with thought. We assume, therefore, that when the brain and thought are gone, consciousness must be gone.


And you describe this materialistic assumption as a new form of belief…

Materialism simply replaced monotheism. But scientific beliefs can do things that religious beliefs couldn’t. You see, they’re much more effective on a technological level. But the problem with them is that, in order to work, they have to basically erase us: science can explain almost anything, except you or me. And so we’re left out of the picture, and then we’re told: ‘Well, you know, consciousness doesn’t really exist.’ Not exactly very convincing. I think what we did is that we confused technological success with philosophical truth. As I like to joke, we just assume the following logic: “We can build refrigerators, therefore materialism is true.” I know that doesn’t follow. That’s my point.


One ‘heavyweight’ category of scientists that you label ‘flipped’ were the early quantum physicists from Schrödinger to Bohm and Pauli. You describe how they all became interested in mystical literature, because it seemed to offer an explanatory non-dual metaphysics for the quantum world they observed. How serious should we take this link 100 years later, I mean nowadays ‘quantum mysticism’ is another word for ‘pseudoscience’…

OK, so not only did the early quantum physicists combine comparative mystical literature and quantum physics. They insisted the mystical literature was the best place to go to see what the effects of quantum reality are “up here,” in our world and experience. They saw this comparison almost instantly. Too many physicists today, I think, would say something historically ignorant, like: ‘Well, this comparison between mystical literature and quantum physics is just a countercultural fluke. You know, it was New Age hippies who did that.’ And I want to say, “Sorry, this is simply not true. You know, your own founders, people you still read and revere, they were all saying this back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Just go read them. Stop the nonsense. And, oh, by the way, stop making fun of the New Age and hippies. They aren’t punching bags.”


But was this a private fascination for them, or did they publicly link quantum physics to the metaphysics of mystical literature?

They were public about this. Schrödinger wrote some wonderful things on how there’s only one mind, or One Mind. And he was reading Sufi and Hindu mystical literatures, through the available humanistic and historical scholarship, of course. He has this memorable line where, after a dear friend dies, and he’s really struggling over this, someone asks him whether animals have souls. And he replies in so many words: ‘Of course, animals don’t have souls. And neither do we. We’re all one mind. The light returns to the one light at death, and that’s it. The light does not and cannot die. It just returns to the light.’ So he had this whole metaphysical system in place. Or consider someone like Niels Bohr. He actually put the Chinese Daoist yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms. That’s how deep down the rabbit hole he had gone. He saw the cultural expression of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics in Chinese Daoism. It’s hard not to look at his coat of arms and think he’s a New Ager. [Laughs:] Oh, it’s Niels Bohr. It’s the guy who created the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.


Isn’t there more cultural tension these days around relating quantum physics to metaphysical systems of non-duality? Watching for instance a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, we hear Harris literally warning the audience that it’s dangerous to link quantum physics with religion or spirituality—suggesting that that is exactly what Chopra is doing.

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination. My own best bet is that future culture is not going to be a scientific culture in the materialist or secular sense. But it’s also not going to be a religious culture. It will be something we have not even imagined yet, much less enacted through our knowledge and technologies. And I think that’s what is so difficult for people to understand. People like myself are not offering a solution here. We’re offering a conversation. And we don’t know where it’s going to go. I think Sam Harris is doing the same, by the way. When he talks about meditation, Buddhism, and the nature of consciousness in an effort to push us all beyond where we are at the moment with our science or religion, he is offering his own future synthesis of mind and matter.


You do describe the directions though, the best metaphysical options we have for explaining consciousness. They range from panpsychism, the idea that all matter is ‘minded’, to idealism, the idea that there is one universal mind. In earlier interviews you mentioned that your personal position is somewhere in between these poles, called ‘dual aspect monism’, how would you define that? 

Dual aspect monism basically says that when you and I are talking, there’s an inside relating to an outside. I experience myself as essentially this twoness. There is something “inside” this body-brain relating to all these objects “out here” in three dimensional space. You’re on my internal screen, as it were. But, fundamentally, deep down, there is absolutely no distinction between my own subjectivity and this material world. They are ontologically monistic. It’s all one world. What actually splits this fundamental unity into two is this body brain. I’m the splitter. You’re the splitter. The body and the brain are what splits the one world into a mental and a material dimension, but deep down that world is both mental and material at the same time, or, if you prefer, it’s neither. However you want to talk about it, it’s not matter as traditionally conceived (but neither is it mind as traditionally conceived. So am I materialist? Yes, or No. Am I an idealist? Yes, or No. Do you see my paradoxical point? It’s only paradoxical on this level. We keep thinking in binarisms or dualisms, which simply are not so on a deeper level.


This might all sound theoretical and abstract, but what’s so fascinating about your notion of ‘The Flip’ is that actually many normal people experience this one-ness, denied or ignored by materialism. Could you say something about the amount of ‘real life stories’ that you have encountered?

I get emails every single week now, multiple emails. I can’t even respond to them any longer. And they’re often long. And they detail the most extraordinary things (ed. paranormal, mystical experiences) happening to people. Very often, they’ve never told anyone, but now they’re telling me, a complete stranger. They can’t tell anyone, of course, because nobody will listen to them. They’ll just be made fun of (you know, called “New Age” or a “hippie”). Often they can’t even tell their own spouses or partners. That’s the dumb culture I’m complaining about all the time.

Let me give you a simple example. In the last year, we’ve been through this terrible pandemic. We’re still in it. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people have been put on respirators and have gotten very close to dying. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have come back from those experiences and have reported all kinds of astonishing, strange experiences. And it all gets reduced today to something truly stupid like ‘covid mania’. You know, ‘it’s just a function of the drugs they were on.’ We never sit down and say, well, let’s listen to what they experienced and let’s consider whether that might be true. The rules of the public game do not allow us to go there. We just immediately reduce it to some kind of mania or some kind of drug effect.


But how then should we integrate the ‘flipped state’ into society, into our culture, into the problems we’re facing as humanity?

I was struggling with that while writing the book. Basically what I argue is that the only real way to integrate these flipped states in any truly sustainable way is through education. We have to change the way we educate children and young adults, and we have to stop assuming either the truth of these individual religious worldviews or the truth of the secular, materialistic worldview. We have to be more capacious and generous and imagine different future worlds. Because I don’t think we can rely on individuals to flip, I think we have to somehow integrate that flip into future forms of knowledge in our public culture, and then people will flip. But they won’t all flip. We have to understand and honor that, too.

Contact with universal consciousness through the research of human mentality

Contact with universal consciousness through the research of human mentality

Reading | Psychology


One of the most respected psychologists in the Slavic world—where materialist prejudices are less pronounced—Prof. Victor Petrenko, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discusses his views on the nature of mind and reality. He shows, through remarkable experiments, that our very perception is conditioned upon our ability to tell ourselves, conceptually, what we are perceiving. It is possible that we simply do not perceive what we have no conceptual categories to make sense of. This way, we may be immersed in effectively alien aspects of reality that we cannot cognize. This captivating essay introduces to a Western audience the high-quality—and arguably less metaphysically biased—scholarship of the Slavic world in an area of knowledge whose relevance to our lives cannot be overestimated.

Since its establishment as an experimental science, psychology has gravitated in its cognition towards the Cartesian subject-object paradigm, in which the role of the object has been attributed to the “research subject”—a person—to be studied by objectively measurable methods. And since such methods are scarcely applicable to the inner, spiritual and social life of an individual, the research has been restricted to studying simple physiological reactions, associative processes, and patterns of perception of simple objects. Thus, methods of self-observation and introspection fell by the wayside in psychology. Only with the arrival of psychoanalysis did a branch of science emerge—parallel to the mainstream—that brought forth humanistic and transpersonal psychology, focusing on first-person spiritual experiences.

More recently, however, there has been increasing focus on holistic systems of being and processes that include the human personality as a subsystem in the relationship between human beings, environment, society, history, science, art and spiritual values. And the higher the level of holistic systems is examined, the more complex and less understood are the mechanisms of the regulation and development of the complex whole, in which a human being is embedded.

For example, V. Vernadsky’s speaks of the biosphere and human civilization being a geological factor in the evolution of the Earth’s crust, but also of the reverse influence of geomorphological processes and cataclysms on the emerging noosphere—the realm of human mind. This line of thinking was continued by A. Nazaretyan [36, 38] and V. Panov [41] in the analysis of technogenic crises caused by the disruption of the moral and technological balance, and the impact of the spiritual state of society on nature and industrial progress.

Both the positive and destructive influences of unconscious processes on human psychosomatics are well researched and documented in psychology. And according to religious systems, not just deeds, but evil thoughts alone, influence a human being’s spiritual and physical well-being. Through acts of self-contemplation and repentance we can perhaps experience that influence first-hand. However, all these levels of interrelatedness in complex systems, in which the human being is a constituent part, are poorly studied, reflected or represented in a conceptual psychological framework.

To remain in the field of science rather than religion or art, two comprehensive strategies are possible. The first one is when we adhere strictly to the paradigm of natural sciences and operate with notions underpinned by readily observable phenomena, at the risk of reducing the whole to its fragments. As a result, we would remain blind to the multidimensionality and multi-levelness of the world; for a successfully functioning individual in the everyday life could, at the same time, be bare and helpless against extraordinary existential problems of life and death, or the meaning of life and faith. An alternative strategy would be to construct concepts containing ‘room for growth,’ whereby we accept a degree of uncertainty and gaps in our knowledge. One such notion that could enter the theoretical framework of psychology is the concept of fate, for it has a rich mythological tradition, a complex symbolic representation and a vivid history of conscious expression through artistic means.

Calculations independently carried out by the Russian theoretical astrophysicist A. Panov [40] and the Australian historian-globalist G. Snooks showed a steady acceleration of development across the geomorphological, biological and noospheric stages of the Earth’s evolution. The so-called ‘Snooks-Panov vertical’ revealed a zone of singularity whereby, by about 2045, the curve of the rate of evolution rushes to infinity. What will ensue then: perhaps the end of humanity or, on the contrary, the emergence of the immortal superhuman? Perhaps, given the development of communications technology, humanity will merge into a single super-entity—a kind of earthly version of S. Lem’s “Solaris”?

It seems, however, that the 24-year period from the present day to the hypothetical singularity zone is too short of a time for our transformation into neo-humanity. One possible hypothesis accounting for the phenomenon of singularity could be contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence, which stands to give our civilization access to truly boundless information sources and new treasures of knowledge. What contradicts this hypothesis, however, is the so-called ‘Great Silence of Space’: the absence of reliable signals from our fellow ET ‘brothers in mind.’ Here, perhaps, examples from zoo-psychology and cultural anthropology can provide some insight.

Every living being builds an inner image—a mental model of the world—limited by the perceptual capabilities of its psyche. The higher up the evolutionary ladder it is, the more complicated its image of the world becomes [28]. For example, a mosquito will lay its eggs both on the shiny surface of water—which is biologically appropriate—and on the shiny surface of glass—which is biologically inadequate. A frog, though being higher up the evolutionary ladder, does not have a sufficient degree of neuronal differentiation to distinguish a slow-moving snake from rocks and branches on the forest floor. Such inadequate biologically behavior is due simply to insufficient complexity of cognitive maps, a limited mental representation of the world.

Certainly, the world of a frog is extremely primitive compared to that of a human. But we, too, are limited in our perception by the individual systems of meaning available to us. We mentally construct a representation of the world, which allows us to become aware of it, but only to the extent determined by that very frame of reference we created.

There is an interesting phenomenon of human perception and awareness observed in a study done together with a colleague and student, V. Kucherenko: if you instruct a research subject in a hypnotic state not to see, for example, cigarettes, the subject indeed stops seeing them. Even after coming out of the trance state, when asked to list the items on a table, he or she cannot see not only loose cigarettes, but also an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a pack of cigarettes. The same goes for a lighter, since it is associated with the process of lighting a cigarette. And whenever the subject could see the lighter or a related item, he or she could still not identify it, reporting instead: “Some strange cylinder… I don’t understand… It must be from Validol medication.” Clearly, the mental function related to the forbidden object and other objects associated with it was inhibited, and a whole semantic field of those objects dropped out of perception. It is as if the actions ‘to look’ and ‘to see’ were split up: the research subject saw these objects but was not aware of them due to the hypnotic suggestion.

We investigated systematically the influence of emotions on categorization processes; how certain emotional states changed the internal thesaurus; how semantic spaces were transformed with the emergence of those emotions. We induced, through hypnosis, such simple emotional states as fear, euphoria, guilt, etc., and then watched how the person’s system of associations changed. When confronted with a state that came upon them out of the blue, some people would produce fictional stories to match those states. For example, someone with the induced feeling of guilt explained his condition this way: “During the experiment, someone cheekily opened the door and looked in. I punched him in the eye. It was awkward in a way.” At the end of the experiment, the hypnotist naturally ‘erased’ the induced condition and suggested a pleasant neutral mood, after which the research subject was happy to come back for subsequent sessions.

In the course of this experiment, a kind of matrix was formed, which we then evaluated by using factor and cluster analysis, to see how the semantic spaces were transformed by certain emotions. Using Vygotsky’s terms, we investigated the relationship between “affect and intellect.” Emotional experiences affect, and spiritual experiences play an enormous role in, human perception of the world. Like crooked mirrors, they transform the picture of the world by adding and removing certain fragments.

Here is a prime example from a study I conducted together with V. Kucherenko during the off-site psychological vacation school at Moscow State University. Students lived in a two-person room. A roommate of one of the study participants was interested in observing the hypnosis procedure. To ensure that our research subject would not be distracted by an additional person in the room, we made a hypnotic suggestion precluding him from seeing his roommate. The ‘invisible’ roommate got bored at some point and decided to shave, since he thought that, due to being ‘invisible,’ he could do whatever he wanted. The moment he turned the electric shaver on, our research subject became completely perplexed: he heard the sound that came from the shaver, but he could not see his roommate or the device. Judging by the look on his face, he seemed to be tormented by the incomprehensibility of the situation. Then he stood up and took a few steps toward the source of the sound. The sight of the somnambulist was peculiar enough, so his ‘invisible’ roommate jumped frightened from his seat. The research subject stopped literally a few centimeters from his roommate and fell into a deep trance. Thus, a logical contradiction arose, the collateral result of which was a state of trance: the subject seemed to see his roommate, since he did not try to pass through him; yet, he did not see him, since he could not figure out the source of the noise.

We explain this contradiction through the separation of ‘seeing’ from ‘perceiving.’ So, according to Hegel’s philosophy, in sensations or emotions subject and object are merged, and there is no epistemic opposition between them. But when we express a feeling through symbols—as in language—we commit an act of estrangement from what we directly experience. In this form of symbolic representation, the original experience can be transmitted to another in an act of communication, or to oneself in the form of intra-personal communication, and thus becomes perceived [6]. Consciousness, in this interpretation, is a secondary perception in a semiotic or symbolic form. What can be expressed in a form of a language—understood broadly as a system of meaning in the context of human cultural and historical experience—can be cognized.

Concerning the case of the ‘invisible’ roommate, the research subject saw the ‘forbidden object’—i.e., his roommate—but was not able to become aware of him, because the system of meaning associated with the forbidden object was blocked by the hypnotic suggestion. This conclusion was also supported by our other experiments, in which a hypnotic suggestion led not only to the phenomenon of non-perception, but also blocked both the meaning of the ‘forbidden’ object and a number of other related meanings.

Experiments have also revealed that awareness requires some kind of language through which the very process of awareness occurs. And the more formalized this language is, the clearer, but narrower, in semantic scope is the awareness. So, the language of the unconscious, containing images and symbols, which allows a broad interpretation of what is being perceived, is characterized by a low degree of awareness. Thus, conscious perception of anything requires specific perceptual organs for acquiring information and cognitive structures responsible for recognizing and interpreting it; it depends on the presence of a system of meaning—a kind of language, understood in a broad semiotic sense.

Coming back to the problem of the ‘Great Silence of Space.’ As we know, our bodies contain heavy elements—for example, iron in red blood cells—which originated in distant supernova explosions and were then carried by comets to different parts of the universe, including our solar system. In fact, according to the theory of panspermia by H. Richter and H. von Helmholtz, life itself has a cosmic origin and is transmitted through a kind of cosmic relay from earlier sources. Also, scientists like F. Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe claim that interstellar dust particles contain frozen cells and bacteria [5].

Undoubtedly, it took billions of years for evolution to transform these cosmic embryos of life into highly organized living organisms, possessing a psyche. But if life has a cosmic origin, then it is quite logical to assume that human consciousness, too, developed in the course of cultural-historical evolution, with some kind of involvement of an omnipresent universal mind.

But then why the Great Silence? It is naive to expect that possible alien civilizations are at approximately the same level of development as we are; that they would send us some signals, and that earthlings would successfully decode them; that aliens would arrive in spaceships, perhaps even more advanced than ours, and would make friendly contact.

Over the past 300 years, the Earth’s civilization has undergone unprecedented technological development. And taking into account the acceleration rate shown by the calculations of Snooks and Panov, it is difficult to even imagine what heights our civilization will reach in the near future. Still, 300 years is just a fraction of a moment by cosmic standards.

Cosmonaut S. Krichevsky, who collected interesting evidence of altered states of consciousness during space flights, confidently spoke about how space would be conquered by human beings, that our nearest descendants would settle on other planets in our solar system, and that we would become a space civilization. However, it’s more likely that possible contact with extraterrestrial civilizations will be of a very different kind.

We could start by searching for contact with other worlds in our own mental states; in the sphere of the unconscious, in meditative trance states, and psychology and semiotics can play an important role there. In our recent publications [43, 45] we try to substantiate our opinion that, operationally, human consciousness is anchored in the subject-object paradigm dating back to Descartes, where space and time are present as categories of consciousness or, according to Kant, intuitions of consciousness.

Consciousness, broadly understood as the ability to feel, experience and sense, may have a cosmic origin. In its background forms, it can act as a tuning fork of the Universe, thus evolving and diversifying in earthly conditions to the level corresponding to human consciousness. If the hypothesis of pre-existing consciousness is true, then our ‘brothers in mind’ can be searched not only by launching probes and telescopes into space, but also by meditating, directing awareness inward, deep into our own consciousness, accessing the archetypes of collective and, possibly, universal unconsciousness. This is precisely what the adepts of Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as the practitioners of Sufism and Hesychasm, did, and the difference lies only in the concepts describing the various religious experiences.

The practices of science and religion converge here. The history of religion is imbued with the experience of ‘peak’ states of consciousness [31, 12, 61], which psychology is just coming to understand scientifically. The idea of a pre-existing universal consciousness can be found in Hinduism, whereby the universal consciousness precedes the individual one. While being the underlying background, universal consciousness acts as a ‘carrier wave’ on the basis of which more separate individual consciousnesses form. W. James compared the interrelationship of individual consciousnesses to the roots of trees intertwined in the subterranean darkness, or to the ocean floor that connects the islands to one another. It’s also possible that there is a continuum of universal consciousness in which our divided minds are immersed.

Individual consciousness is restricted, presumably, to avoid possible overload and nervous breakdowns in adapting to the environment. Individual self-awareness—the mechanisms of self-identity—cut the individual off from other people’s consciousness and experiences, which nonetheless sometimes breakthrough in instances of telepathy, hypnosis or synchronicity. B. Porshnev’s hypothesis also supports this interpretation, whereby the emergence of natural languages was due to the need for protection from outside influences by means of a language barrier [49].

In order to consciously perceive something, it is necessary to have peripheral sensory organs, cognitive schemes and standards of recognition. Furthermore, to be aware of what is perceived, it is also necessary to have a certain language—understood in a broad semiotic sense—such as the languages of art. For lack of a number of specific sense organs for perceiving certain stimuli from the outside world, the human psyche contains a number of blind spots. For example, it does not perceive electromagnetic radiation in the range of ultraviolet, including X-rays and gamma rays. It is also insensitive to static magnetic fields and neutrino radiation. In addition, human perception is limited with respect to fast-flowing and super-slow processes.

But apart from the work of the peripheral organs, the process of perception includes the regulating role of cognitive structures of the brain (cf. N. Bernstein [7], P. Anokhin [4]). In scientific terms, these physiological control mechanisms [2] have corresponding perceptual standards, cognitive maps, cognitive schemas, meaning systems and semantic spaces. If the latter two are blocked or underdeveloped, it leads to ‘blindness’ of perception. Different psychological and other forms of training can be used to expand perception, such as: sensitivity training, meditation [9, 56, 8, 39] and auto-training [50, 54], yoga [21, 51, 55], Holotropic breathing [17, 24], methods of sensorimotor psychosynthesis [46,47], hypnosis [53] and soft Eriksonian hypnosis [10], different religious practices, dynamic meditation in the form of monotonous body movements or repetition of mantras, texts having a sacred meaning [19, 18], fasting, prayer [62], contemplation [1, 23, 52], seclusion [11] and retreat [57].

Psycho-practices and meditation not only lower the thresholds of sensitivity, opening up areas previously inaccessible to sensations and inner experiences, but, most importantly, they expand consciousness by removing the subject-object opposition and merging individual consciousness with the universal, transpersonal or divine, if you like.

Some clarification is due here. In philosophy, the concept of consciousness is interpreted broadly, including all the human mental manifestations. However, in psychology, since Freud’s times, it has been common to separate the concepts of ‘the conscious’ and ‘the unconscious,’ whereby the latter includes all we perceive but are unconscious of [3]. According to A. Luria [30], we remember practically everything we have seen during our whole life, which is confirmed empirically by the psycho-technique of passive information extraction [25, 26], whereby the patient can remember, for example, what sandals he or she wore at the age of 2 or the number plate of a car that accidentally caught his or her eye many months ago. In the hypnotic trance state, like in a slow-motion movie, one can see in the mind the moving car and have time to read its number plate if, of course, it was accessible to one’s vision at the moment of primary perception. One can zoom in and out, change the angle, scroll forward and backward in time, i.e., work with it as with the actually perceived object rather than a passive photograph. But in order to grasp what was retrieved from passive memory storage one needs a language, for both the hypnotic suggestion and the described image retrieved from the memory are communicated by means of language. The language of the unconscious, however, opens up an extremely wide range of interpretations. The choice of one or another interpretation of a dream, for example, resembles the process of collapse of the wave-function in physics [42, 32]. The history of the ancient world gives us vivid examples of the Delphic oracles who, in trance under the influence of psychotropic drugs, interpreted the images of their own unconscious in vague utterances. They made obscure and ambiguous prophecies. There is a widely known example of such misinterpreted prophecy: “If a king crosses the river Halys, he will destroy a great empire.” King Croesus of Lydia, preparing for war, misinterpreted this prophecy as a favorable prediction, and as a result he destroyed his own kingdom.

The translation from the language of the unconscious—which uses images and symbols, and presumably contains information about extra-terrestrial intelligence—into a common language requires the development of understanding [64], the analysis of the semantics of images and semiotic research of symbols [29] and the development of the field of psycho-semantics of art [44].

Perhaps the psychology of art, and in particular semiotics of music, will be the Ariadne’s thread that will bring researchers in contact with space. No less important an area for establishing such contact is comparative religion, which studies concrete personal realizations of the transpersonal ‘calls of space.’ The study of altered states of consciousness [60, 27, 58, 15] and transpersonal psychology [16, 17, 33, 34, 60, 13, 20, 24] are also essential in this context.

The race and competition between countries in the field of atomic physics in the twentieth century will be replaced in the twenty-first century by cooperation and collaboration in the humanities, primarily in the fields of psychology, post-non-classical philosophy [59], structural linguistics and semiotics. Contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations, predicted presumably around 2045, will cause an explosion of research problems in the field of humanities, and psychology will emerge as the ‘queen of sciences’ for a certain period of universal history. Also, by devising a specific system of meaning that is not tied to our concrete world on the one hand, and, on the other, by developing sophisticated meditation techniques and psycho-practices, we may come into contact with probable other worlds at deep meditative levels.


* An extended version of this essay was first published in Russian: Petrenko V.F. (2016) Contact with Universal Consciousness through the Research of Human Mentality. Social Sciences and Modernity, No. 5, pp. 142-155.



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Near-Death Experiences during cardiac arrest

Near-Death Experiences during cardiac arrest

Reading | Medicine

dr. Pim van Lommel | 2021-04-20

van Lommel NDEs

In this short and powerful essay, cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel summarizes and discusses four rigorous studies of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) carried out in clinical settings. He concludes that, on a scientific basis, the materialist notion that brain activity somehow is or generates consciousness is not adequate to accommodate and make sense of the empirical evidence available.

The scientific study of near-death experiences (NDEs) pushes us to the limits of our medical and neurophysiological ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relationship. Direct evidence of how neurons or neuronal networks could possibly produce the subjective essence of the mind is currently lacking. Despite our modern neuroimaging techniques like EEG, fMRI, and PET-scan, we cannot measure nor scientifically and objectively prove what we think or feel: we just measure changing neural activation (neural correlates). In four recently published prospective studies on NDEs in survivors of cardiac arrest (van Lommel et al., 2001; Greyson, 2003; Parnia et al., 2001; Sartori, 2006), between 10 and 20% of the 562 included patients reported an experience of enhanced consciousness during the period of unconsciousness, during clinical death, during a transient functional loss of the cortex and the brainstem. But how could a clear consciousness outside one’s body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during clinical death? A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during such a period of impaired cerebral perfusion challenges the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain. Complex experiences such as those reported during NDEs should not arise in the first place, nor be retained in memory. Scientific research on NDEs during cardiac arrest questions the purely materialistic paradigm in science.


What Is an NDE?

A near-death experience is a form of non-ordinary mental expression and can be defined as the reported memory of a range of impressions during a special state of consciousness, including a number of special and universal reported elements such as an out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, a life review, and a conscious return into the body. Many circumstances are described during which NDEs are reported, such as cardiac arrest (clinical death), shock after loss of blood (complicated childbirth), coma caused by traumatic brain injury or stroke, near-drowning (mostly children) or asphyxia, but NDE-like experiences are also reported in serious diseases that are not immediately life-threatening, during isolation, depression, or meditation, or without any obvious reason. The NDE is usually transformational, causing enhanced intuitive sensitivity, profound changes of life-insight, and the loss of fear of death. The content of an NDE and the effects on patients seem similar worldwide, across all cultures and all times. NDEs occur with increasing frequency because of improved survival rates resulting from modern techniques of resuscitation, and from better therapies for patients with cerebral trauma. According to a recent random poll in the US and in Germany, about 4% of the total population in the western world has experienced an NDE (Gallup & Proctor, 1982). Thus, about 9 million people in the US, and about 20 million people in Europe should have had this extraordinary conscious experience. For most scientists the phenomenon of near-death experience raises a number of fundamental questions, like how and why does an NDE occur? Or how does the content of an NDE come about? And why does a person’s life change so radically after an NDE? After all, according to current medical knowledge it is impossible to experience consciousness during cardiac arrest or deep coma.


Four Recent Prospective Studies on NDEs

Until quite recently there was no prospective and scientifically designed study to explain the cause and content of an NDE.  Professionally designed prospective studies in survivors of cardiac arrest are necessary in order to obtain more reliable data to corroborate or refute the existing theories on the cause and content of NDEs. We need to know if there could be a physiological, pharmacological, psychological or demographic explanation for why people experience enhanced consciousness during a period of cardiac arrest. In the four recently published prospective studies on NDEs in survivors of cardiac arrest, with identical study design, between 10 and 20% of the 562 included patients reported an experience of enhanced consciousness during the period of seeming unconsciousness, during clinical death, during a transient functional loss of the cortex and the brainstem. Clinical death is defined as the period of seeming unconsciousness caused by a total lack of oxygen in the brain (anoxia) because of the arrest of circulation and breathing, as caused by cardiac arrest in patients with an acute myocardial infarction. If in this situation no resuscitation is initiated within five to ten minutes, the brain cells will be irreversibly damaged, and the patient will always die.


The Dutch prospective study on NDEs in survivors of cardiac arrest

In 1988 a prospective study was initiated in the Netherlands, and it was published in The Lancet in December 2001 (van Lommel et al., 2001). At that point, no large-scale prospective study into NDEs had been undertaken anywhere in the world. Our study aimed to include all consecutive patients who had survived a cardiac arrest in one of the ten participating Dutch hospitals. All these patients were in the first stage of the process of dying and would have died if resuscitation had not been initiated. This kind of design also creates a control group of patients who have survived a cardiac arrest but who have no recollection of the period of seeming unconsciousness. In a prospective study, such patients are asked, within a few days of their resuscitation, whether they have any recollection of the period of their cardiac arrest, i.e., of the period of their seeming unconsciousness.

We found that 282 patients (82%) had no recollection of the period of cardiac arrest, of their period of seeming unconsciousness. However, 62 patients (18%) reported some recollection of the time of clinical death. Of these patients 41 patients (12%) had a core experience with a score of 6 or higher, and 6% had a superficial NDE. And all well-known elements were reported, like awareness of being dead, positive emotions, an out-of-body experience, moving through a tunnel, communication with ‘the light,’ an observation of colors or of a celestial landscape, a meeting with deceased relatives, a life review and the experience of a border. The more elements were reported, the deeper the experience was. What might distinguish the small percentage of patients who report an NDE from those who do not? We found to our surprise that neither the duration of cardiac arrest (2 minutes or 8 minutes) nor the duration of seeming unconsciousness (5 minutes or three weeks in coma), nor the need for intubation in complicated CPR, nor a short induced cardiac arrest in electrophysiological stimulation (EPS) had any influence on the frequency of NDE. So, the degree or gravity of the lack of oxygen in the brain (anoxia) appeared to be irrelevant, and a physiological explanation for NDE like anoxia could be excluded in our study. Neither could we find any relationship between the frequency of NDE and administered drugs, fear of death before the arrest, nor foreknowledge of NDE, gender, religion, or education.

We additionally performed a longitudinal study with taped interviews 2 and 8 years following the cardiac arrest of all late survivors with NDE, along with a matched control group of survivors of cardiac arrest who did not report an NDE. This study was designed to assess whether the loss of fear of death, the transformation in attitude toward life and the enhanced intuitive sensitivity is the result of having an NDE or just the result of the cardiac arrest itself. This had never been studied before in a prospective design. The NDE turned out to be a life changing experience because only patients with an NDE did show this typical transformation. They were less afraid of death and had a stronger belief in an afterlife. We saw in them a greater interest in spirituality and questions about the purpose of life, as well as a greater acceptance of and love for oneself in combination with a feeling of oneness with others, and with nature. The conversations we had in our longitudinal study revealed that people, often to their own amazement and confusion, had acquired enhanced intuitive feelings after an NDE. Finally, it is quite remarkable and a surprising and unexpected finding to see a cardiac arrest lasting just a few minutes give rise to such a lifelong process of transformation. However, the integration and acceptance of an NDE is a process that may take many years because of its far-reaching impact on people’s pre-NDE understanding of life and value system. Despite the mostly positive experience the NDE is also a traumatic event because there is hardly any acceptance by doctors, nurses, family and partner (with a divorce rate of more than 70%), which makes the process of acceptance and integration exceedingly difficult, and this process will take many, many years, with strong feelings of depression, homesickness, and loneliness, but the longer interval between NDE and interview, the more positive changes are usually reported.


The other 3 prospective studies on NDE

Bruce Greyson, who published a prospective study in 116 survivors of cardiac arrest in the USA (Greyson, 2003), found that 15.5% of the patients reported an NDE: 9.5% reported a core NDE, and 6% a superficial NDE with a score of less than 6. He writes that “no one physiological or psychological model by itself could explain all the common features of an NDE. The paradoxical occurrence of a heightened, lucid awareness and logical thought processes during a period of impaired cerebral perfusion raises perplexing questions for our current understanding of consciousness and its relation to brain function. A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain”. Sam Parnia (Parnia et al., 2001) included 63 patients who survived their cardiac arrest. He found in his study that 11% reported an NDE: 6.3% reported a core NDE, and 4.8% a superficial NDE with a score of less than 6. He writes that the NDE reports with veridical perceptions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) suggest that the NDE occurs during the period of seeming unconsciousness. This is a surprising conclusion, in his view, because when the brain is so dysfunctional that the patient is deeply comatose, those cerebral structures that underpin subjective experience and memory must be severely impaired. Complex experiences as reported in the NDE should not arise or be retained in memory. Such patients would be expected to have no subjective experience, as was the case in most patients who survive cardiac arrest, since all centers in the brain that are ostensibly responsible for generating conscious experiences have stopped functioning because of the lack of oxygen. And over a period of four years, Penny Sartori (2006) carried out a smaller study into NDEs in 39 survivors of cardiac arrest in the UK. She found that 23% reported an NDE: 18% reported a core NDE, and 5% a superficial NDE with a score of less than 6. She concludes that “according to mainstream science, it is quite impossible to find a scientific explanation for the NDE as long as we ‘believe’ that consciousness is only a side effect of a functioning brain.” The fact that people report lucid experiences in their consciousness when brain activity has ceased is, in her view, “difficult to reconcile with current medical opinion.”


Neurophysiology in Cardiac Arrest

All elements of an NDE are experienced during the period of cardiac arrest—that is, during apparent unconsciousness—and clinical death. But how is it possible to explain these experiences during temporary loss of all functions of the brain due to acute lack of oxygen in the cortex and the brainstem (pan-cerebral anoxia)? We know that patients with cardiac arrest are at least seemingly unconscious within seconds. Through many studies with induced cardiac arrest in both human and animal models, cerebral function has been shown to be severely compromised during cardiac arrest: there is complete cessation of cerebral blood flow immediately following ventricular fibrillation (Gopalan et al., 1999); clinical findings point to sudden loss of all body reflexes, caused by the loss of function of the cortex and abolition of brain-stem activity (all brainstem reflexes); there is loss of the gag reflex, of the corneal reflex, as well as fixed and dilated pupils (van Lommel, 2010). And the function of the respiratory center, located close to the brainstem, fails, resulting in apnea (no breathing). Total loss of oxygen supply (anoxia) causes a functional loss of all cell systems and organs in the body. In anoxia that lasts for only some minutes (transient anoxia) this loss may be temporary, but in prolonged anoxia cell death occurs with permanent functional loss. Several studies have shown that external heart massage during CPR cannot pump enough blood to the brain to restore brain function, but it may be sufficient to keep brain tissue viable for a short time. It always requires defibrillation to reestablish the cardiac rhythm and to restore waking consciousness.


A Flat Line EEG During Cardiac Arrest

But how do we know for sure that the electroencephalogram (EEG)—the registration of the electrical activity of the cortex—has become flat in those patients with cardiac arrest, and how can we study this? In normal circumstances no attempts are made to register an EEG during cardiac arrest, because this takes far too much time, and patients need to be successfully resuscitated and defibrillated as soon as possible. But there have been some reports in which the electrical activity of the brain was measured during cardiac arrest, for example during surgery, or during threshold testing in ICD-implantation. Following the cardiac arrest (‘no flow’), the EEG flat-lined after an average of 15 seconds and remained flat despite external resuscitation (‘low flow’) (Moss & Rockoff, 1980; Losasso et al., 1992). The EEG remains flat during the cardiac arrest until cardiac output has been restored by defibrillation (Marshall et al., 2001). It seems rational to assume that all 562 survivors of cardiac arrest in the four prospective studies on NDEs should have had a flat-line EEG, because no patient had ever been successfully resuscitated within 20 seconds (van Lommel, 2010).



Based on prospective studies on NDE and recent findings in neurophysiological research, and in analogy with concepts from quantum physics, our consciousness cannot be localized in a certain time or space. This is called nonlocal consciousness, because almost all reported aspects of consciousness during cardiac arrest seem to be quantum-like phenomena, such as non-local interconnectedness, beyond time and space (van Lommel, 2013). In this concept our endless or nonlocal consciousness with declarative memories finds its origin, and is stored, in a nonlocal realm as wave-fields of information, and the brain only serves as a relay station for parts of these wave-fields of consciousness to be received into, or as, our waking consciousness. The function of the brain should so be compared with a transceiver, a transmitter/receiver, or interface, exactly like the function of a computer. Different neuronal networks function as interface for different aspects of our consciousness, and the function of neuronal networks should be regarded as receivers and conveyors, not as retainers of consciousness and memories. In this concept, nonlocal consciousness is not rooted in the measurable domain of physics, our manifest world. With this concept of nonlocal consciousness all reported elements of an NDE during cardiac arrest could be explained.

Since the publication of the aforementioned four prospective studies, which have strikingly similar results and conclusions, the phenomenon of the NDE can no longer be scientifically ignored. According to these empirical studies, as well as neurophysiological studies in cardiac arrest, the current materialist view of the relationship between the brain and consciousness held by most physicians, philosophers and psychologists seems too restricted. By making a scientific case for consciousness as a nonlocal and thus ubiquitous phenomenon, we can contribute to new ideas about the relationship between consciousness and the brain. There are now good reasons to assume that our consciousness does not always coincide with the functioning of our brain: enhanced consciousness can apparently be experienced with the possibility of perception out and above the lifeless body. Studies on NDEs seem to suggest that our consciousness does not resides in our brain and is not limited to our brain, because our consciousness has nonlocal properties. According to this hypothesis, our brain seems to have a facilitating function and not a producing function when it comes to consciousness. It seems inevitable that we need new ways of thinking to study consciousness and to reconsider the relationship between consciousness and the brain. We need a so-called postmaterialist science to include all subjective and transpersonal aspects that may occur in our consciousness, and to reconsider our currently widely accepted ideas about the mind-brain relationship.



Gallup, G., & Proctor, W. (1982). Adventures in Immortality: A Look Beyond the Threshold of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gopalan, K. T., Lee, J., Ikeda, S., & Burch, C. M. (1999). Cerebral blood flow velocity during repeatedly induced ventricular fibrillation. J Clin Anesth, 11(4), 290-295.

Greyson, B. (2003). Incidence and correlates of near-death experiences in a cardiac care unit. General Hospital Psychiatry, 25, 269-276.

Losasso, T. J., Muzzi, D. A., Meyer, F. B., & Sharbrough, F. W. (1992). Electroencephalographic monitoring of cerebral function during asystole and successful cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Anesth Analg, 75, 12-19.

Moss, J., & Rockoff , M. (1980). EEG monitoring during cardiac arrest and resuscitation. JAMA, 244(24), 2750-1.

Parnia, S., Waller, D. G., Yeates, R., & Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experience in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation, 48, 149-156.

Sartori, P. (2006). The Incidence and Phenomenology of Near-Death Experiences. Network Review (Scientific and Medical Network), 90, 23-25.

van Lommel, P., Van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest: A prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358, 2039-2045.

van Lommel, P. (2010). Consciousness Beyond Life. The Science of the Near-Death Experience. New York: Harper Collins. Translation from: Van Lommel, P. (2007). Eindeloos Bewustzijn. Een wetenschappelijke visie op de bijna-dood ervaring. Kampen, Ten Have.

van Lommel, P. (2013). Nonlocal Consciousness. A concept based on scientific research on near-death experiences during cardiac arrest. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 7-48.

Is it possible to make a conscious computer?

Is it possible to make a conscious computer?

Reading | Philosophy of Mind

Federico Faggin | 2021-04-11


Science fiction and certain voices in academia have manufactured cultural plausibility for the notion that we should, one day, be able to build a conscious computer. But is this idea even coherent to begin with? Who best to ask but the creator of the microprocessor and artificial intelligence pioneer, Federico Faggin. The below is an excerpt from his newly-released autobiography, Silicon: From the invention of the microprocessor to the new science of consciousness.

Once I started working at Synaptics, I began studying biology and neuroscience on my own, subjects I had not studied at the university. All of the neuroscience books I read described brain operation by reducing it to pure electrochemical activity with the hidden assumption, never explicitly stated, that this activity was identical to sentient perception. It seemed to me that conscious recognitions occurring through feelings and sensations are quite different from pure electrochemical activity. So, I asked Gary Lynch to explain how electrical activity in the brain could manifest itself in the form of sensations and feelings since the two could not possibly be the same thing.

As a psychologist turned neuroscientist, he replied, “Are you talking about consciousness?”

I didn’t know then that “consciousness” was the proper word for what I was trying to express, but it sounded right. “Yes, how does consciousness work and why is this word never mentioned?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s something that happens in the brain and one day we’ll understand it,” he replied.

And that was the end of our conversation. I had never before thought about the nature of consciousness. Gary’s position was entirely consistent with the materialist assumption that all that exists must be produced by the interactions of elementary particles. Over the years I had converted to the physicalist view of the world which holds that consciousness must somehow emerge from the operation of the brain. But how? It was not enough to say that it emerges “somehow.” I needed an explanation.

I thought that if it arises from the brain, which is a complex information processing system like a machine, then a computer could be conscious as well, at least in principle. Taken by great curiosity, I began to think how I could make a conscious computer. This led me to reflect deeply on the characteristics of consciousness, and I soon encountered the great obstacle: the complete lack of understanding we have about the nature of sensations and feelings.

For example, let’s consider how a rose is recognized by its smell. A rose emits specific molecules with unique three-dimensional structures. These can fit as “keys” in the “locks” of certain receptor molecules embedded in the olfactory cell membranes located in the nasal epithelium. When this happens, the cells containing the now-activated receptors produce electrical signals. These electrical signals generated by the specific mix of molecules emitted by the rose constitute the input signals to the neural networks of the olfactory cortex, and their output signals correspond to the name of the identified object: a rose.

A machine can certainly recognize a rose by its “emissions” through emulating the natural process I just described. However, a machine does not feel anything, while we feel the aroma or scent as well as recognize the rose as the source of that feeling. In other words, whereas the name of the recognized object is another symbol, the scent of the rose is not a symbol, it is something else. It is a sentient experience that connects us with our emotions and knowledge.

The scent is something completely different from the electrical signals generated by the neural networks. It is related to them, of course, but it is not identical, nor can it be produced directly from them since it has a completely different quality than electrical or mechanical activity. The scent of a rose, just like the taste of chocolate or the sound of a violin, is not another symbol. It is an experience, a feeling that makes symbolic data conscious. We know the scent exists because we feel it in our awareness. Consciousness is then the capacity to know the meaning of certain symbols.

A computer that identifies a rose by its aroma only mechanically captures the pattern of electrical signals produced by appropriate sensors of the rose’s aromatic molecules (the chemical symbols). The computer is not aware of the scent of the rose, even though it may respond in various ways to the rose symbol. Thus, the computer blindly responds to a rose the way it has been programmed to, or in the way it has automatically learned. The computer can neither be aware, nor consciously know anything. Thus, the comprehension brought by consciousness is not accessible to a computer. Herein lies the fundamental limitation of artificial intelligence.

Feelings, sensations, and sentiments are not symbols like electrical or chemical signals. They represent instead the meaning of symbols in the “space” of our consciousness. Consciousness is the inner space where the translation of signals coming from the world are processed by the brain and take place in the form of feelings, sensations, and the meanings behind them that we perceive within. The nature of feelings is completely different from that of physical phenomena. A physical phenomenon is what takes place in the material world and is accessible from the outside through our senses and instruments. It is what gives rise to a so-called third-person experience common to all observers. A feeling, on the other hand, is a first-person experience accessible only from within by the owner of the consciousness.

This conversion of a rose symbol to its scent is an example of the so-called “hard problem of consciousness,” as philosopher David Chalmers called it in 1995. It can be expressed as follows: What is the physical phenomenon responsible for the feeling associated with the scent of a rose? What something “feels like,” a sensation or a feeling, is called quale (plural: qualia), and therefore the hard problem of consciousness can be stated as: “How do qualia emerge from matter?”

Science cannot explain this phenomenon, and nobody seems to have the faintest idea about how this miracle happens. It is surprising that most researchers believe there is no miracle. We are so used to being aware that we generally do not recognize that consciousness cannot possibly emerge from unconscious matter. Only those who have begun to think seriously about this problem realize that consciousness is a fundamentally unsolved problem.

For years I tried to understand how consciousness could arise from electrical or biochemical signals. Invariably, electrical signals can only produce other electrical signals or other physical consequences such as force or movement, but never sensations and feelings that are qualitatively different. Feelings are internal subjective properties or states correlated to external properties of matter that we consider objective. They represent a class of phenomena completely different from material phenomena.

Consciousness is where the conversion from outer material symbolic reality into inner semantic reality takes place, and qualia are the bearers of meaning. But couldn’t consciousness also be the space in which the inverse conversion from meaning to symbols takes place? If yes, this would imply that inner reality could have a direct impact on outer reality as well, though classical physics denies this possibility by postulating that only outer reality exists and inner reality has no causal power. This is equivalent to saying that either the inner world is illusory or that inner reality can only be influenced by outer reality though not vice versa. But then how can interiority emerge solely from outer reality when the physical laws control only the transformation of outer phenomena into other outer phenomena? The logical conclusion of materialism is that inner reality is illusory and meaning does not exist.

Yet the outer world is brought inside us through the sensory-brain system and becomes an inner experience. If consciousness did not exist, we should have no experience at all, inner or outer, and therefore wouldn’t know anything. Consciousness is needed to know even the most trivial of things. Furthermore, if there is a fundamental influence from outside to inside, shouldn’t there be also an influence from the inside out?

It was then when I realized that consciousness can only be studied through first-person experiences, because no third-person experiment could ever reveal the subjective feelings I’m living through. Therefore, I decided to study consciousness using the only example I knew, myself.

Today I know that I am conscious within myself, but I cannot prove it. And if I cannot even prove that I am conscious, how can I prove if anyone else is conscious? The existence of consciousness cannot be objectively determined with any outer measurement. It is private and cannot be observed from the outside. Therefore, I can only know the true feelings of another person if that person discloses them to me, but my knowledge cannot be certain because that person could be mistaken or lying. Any external measurement can only reveal physical correlates of consciousness, but not what the person truly feels. Qualia, the bearers of meaning, are not visible in any way from the outside. This intense investigation was the ground from which some amazing surprises arose.


Silicon, by Federico Faggin
Silicon, by Federico Faggin

Can a physicist embrace idealism?

Can a physicist embrace idealism?

Reading | Physics

Claus Metzner, PhD | 2021-03-15


Is science in general, and physics in particular, compatible with a consciousness-only worldview in which matter is merely an appearance of extended mental processes underlying all nature? Physicist Dr. Claus Metzner doesn’t see why they shouldn’t.

Pick a random member of the natural science community and ask her if she ever seriously considered the possibility that our life could be a shared dream. Chances are very high that you will receive an emphatic statement about the obvious reality of the ‘world out there,’ about its existence independent from mind, and about the enormous success of science in explaining how this objective reality actually functions. Indeed, the vast majority of researchers working in fields like physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth and life sciences are materialists, and they rarely question this worldview.

Try and ask the follow-up question whether the world that we see is the very same reality which science is investigating. Her answer may be something along those lines: “Basically yes. Of course, our eyes can only see a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. There is more ‘out there’ which humans cannot sense without technical equipment. But basically, yes, what we see is the reality.”

You may then challenge her with the fact that the photons coming from ‘out there’ are absorbed in the retina, and from this point on there are only electrical spike trains traveling inside her dark skull, so that the light she experiences cannot be the light ‘out there’. She may now admit that our subjective experience is a virtual reality show, but at the same time, she will probably insist that this show is created by our evolutionarily optimized brain in a way that faithfully represents the true world around us, because otherwise we could not survive.

At this point of the discussion, you could argue that precisely because evolution wants us to survive, it will not show us the world as it really is, but rather a mental ‘desktop’ of dumped-down, fitness-oriented ‘icons’ that stimulate us to act in the right way.2

But instead of this argument, I recommend a little ‘objectivization exercise’. Its goal is to strip away, step by step, all subjectivity from our inner virtual reality, until only that remains which is truly out there. So, you first ask her to please remove all colors from her inner movie, since colors are pure qualia, not part of objective reality. This leaves her with a series of mental black-and-white images. The next step is to remove also all local differences of brightness from those mental images, since the electro-magnetic field distribution in objective reality has no brightness unless a conscious being is observing them. This last step is probably surprising for her, since now there are not even images left: No more objects with boundaries, arranged in three-dimensional space, nothing visual anymore. You continue to take away from her the subjective experiences of hearing, touching, smelling, and so on, until she is left in a complete void. After this procedure, she may finally be willing to admit that reality beyond our personal consciousness is, at best, something like pure information.

As a working model, let us imagine objective reality as a huge array of numbers, an abstract ‘matrix’ that holds the momentary state of the universe. Something like this information matrix has to exist, because otherwise we could not easily account for the fact that the world is so persistent and that other people seem to live in the same environment as we do. All our individual virtual reality shows must be ‘rendered’ from this universal, shared information matrix, even though certain details of the rendering are relative to the observer. Reversely, we can affect the state of the matrix by acting within our private reality shows. Moreover, the matrix is also updating its values independently from us, following the rules of nature (so that the moon will appear at the expected place tomorrow). The task of basic science is to figure out the update rules of this information matrix.

I have been working for more than three decades as a theoretical physicist in the diverse fields of quantum nanostructures, biophysics and brain-inspired neurophysics. The information matrix, conventionally called matter, is important to me, as I am one of those who make a living from investigating its update rules. But at the same time, I am keenly aware that conscious experience is the only phenomenon that I know to exist without any doubt, whereas the information matrix and its rules are merely an inference to explain the regularities of our experience. After all, we will never have any direct contact with the information matrix, as its states can only be read or modified through events within subjective experience: When a scientist is turning the control knob of a light source to set another intensity and then reads up the resulting change of photocurrent from a measurement instrument, these are mental events in her consciousness. In the same way, when she is later sitting in her office, staring at a plot of her measured data and thinking about how to get it published, these are all mental events in consciousness. And over time, as a collective result of many such individual mental events, a shared worldview is emerging, the great narrative of science, which is helping us to thrive in our mental universe.

Probably, most of us will agree (at least after some work of philosophical persuasion) that the activity of science is experienced entirely within consciousness. But at the same time, most of us will not care too much, because as long as the information matrix exists, reliably and objectively, outside of consciousness, science can proceed as usual. As long as mind-independent matter is granted, even in a completely abstract form, scientists can continue to do their beloved job and make a living from it.

For many years, I was doing science with this kind of dualistic mind set, in which both consciousness and ‘matter/information’ coexisted peacefully. I knew that both are required to explain what I experience, but I did not worry too much which of them is fundamental and which derived from the other. However, at some point, the possibility that consciousness may emerge from matter by some yet unexplainable miracle just stopped to be a reasonable option for me, once and for all. In my opinion, the insight that the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is not just an ordinary problem, waiting to be solved, but simply a category mistake, is a key moment in everyone’s intellectual development. This key insight left my philosophically untrained mind with two basic options: It could be that both consciousness and the information matrix are fundamental and exist independently, which however still left the question unanswered how the two distinct categories can interact. Alternatively, only consciousness might exist, which would imply that life is indeed similar to a dream. It would however have to be a shared multi-subject dream with persistent regularities that are hard to explain without the grounding information matrix.

I did not take the latter option very seriously, until I came across some modern versions of idealistic philosophy, in particular the analytic idealism of Bernardo Kastrup. In a series of books,1 written with outstanding clarity, Kastrup is using philosophical and scientific arguments to make an amazing point: Fundamentally, there is only ‘universal consciousness,’ and sentient beings are ‘dissociated alters’ of this universal consciousness, comparable to whirlpools in an ocean. There is ongoing mental activity within universal consciousness. Whenever this activity impinges upon an alter, this is subjectively experienced as ‘matter’: an ‘image on the alter’s screen of perception.’

I resonated intuitively with this ‘consciousness only’ philosophy and found Kastrup’s arguments rationally convincing. So I gave it a try and lived and worked, for a few months now, as an idealist physicist.

I started with the hope that daily life, and even the practice of science, need not change at all under idealism. And to a large extent this proved to be true: the morning after you convert to idealism, the world looks exactly the same as ever. You are still free to live in the wonderful illusion of a material world with colorful objects arranged in space, together with all those other sentient beings, and you can act in this familiar world, trying to make it a better place. Also, you can be assured that our established scientific knowledge will still be valid and enable our technology.

However, I also noticed a certain fear creeping up from time to time: If the universe ‘out there’ is nothing but consciousness, a purely mental space with evolving contents, and matter is how these transpersonal mental contents look like from the perspective of our individual minds, then all natural sciences, including physics, are merely studying the (presumably imperfect) images of these mental processes. So far, the objective data that has been extracted from such images during the history of science has revealed an enormous amount of comprehensible structure and regularity. But who guarantees that the mental processes in transpersonal consciousness will not suddenly take another course, making all our scientific insights obsolete? After all, are mental processes not something quite unrealiable and irregular, as our nightly dreams seem to suggest?

Kastrup answers this question by pointing to the measurable neural correlates of a subject’s conscious experience, which are images of mental processes as well, viewed from across the dissociative boundaries of an alter. The global activity patterns in a conscious brain, observed over sufficiently long time periods, may indeed change dramatically, directly reflecting the dynamics of mental processes. But when the observation is restricted to a sufficiently small local area, and to a sufficiently short time window, the measured local brain activity will appear more static and predictable. Humans may face a similar situation when they analyze the material universe: the images (matter configurations) that we see around us may correspond only to a small local patch of universal consciousness. Furthermore, all this impinging information may be heavily filtered and transformed through the limitations of our screen of perception.

This is a valid argument. But thinking back, my association of mental processes with human dreams was naively anthropocentric to begin with: The mental processes going on within universal consciousness (but outside of all dissociated alters) may have almost nothing in common with the mental activity we find in humans and animals on this planet. Indeed, the range of possible mental activities must be at least as huge as the space of possible material processes.

Moreover, I realized that the situation of science is similarly precarious under materialism: We have always tacitly assumed that matter, or the state of the information matrix, evolves according to fundamental rules that do not change over time. This assumption has been confirmed so far, as the same laws of physics apply to the early and to the present universe. But, let’s face it, this does not guarantee at all that the universe will follow the same laws in the future.

These considerations somewhat decreased my fear of losing all solid ground, once I subscribed to idealism. However, the fundamental problem remains: under idealism, scientists can no longer claim to investigate the foundations of the universe when they analyze the rules of material processes, because matter is just an imperfect image of what is really going on, a mere epiphenomenon.

Therefore, if physics wants to be more than a ‘science of perception,’ its basic laws should be rewritten in a way that directly reflects the fundamental status of consciousness. If nothing is going on in the universe but mental activity, then physicists will strive for a precise, mathematical theory of these fundamental mental processes. Probably, this future theory of consciousness would be reductionistic, in the sense that complex mental events are explained in terms of more elementary mental events, such as qualia. We would want to describe consciousness with the same level of sophistication as we today describe the quantum fields of matter.

In particular, we would want to understand, in detail, the transformation that happens during ‘perception,’ when mental states of universal consciousness are represented ‘on the screen of our individual minds.’ Once this transformation becomes clear, we may try to invert it and thereby infer the structure, states and rules of universal consciousness itself. Understanding the transformations during perception may also shed a new light on our present physical theories: Some of the structure we have so far attributed to the ‘material world out there’ might turn out to be just a consequence of our perceptual interface.

Luckily, first attempts to construct such a mathematical theory of consciousness are already on their way: Donald Hoffman models universal consciousness as a set of  elementary ‘conscious agents,’2 which are connected to each other by a kind of immaterial communication network, mathematically described by a directed graph. Each agent is capable of a limited set of ‘perceptions’ and ‘actions,’ which change according to simple rules: In every time step, an agent observes the subset of other agents to which it is directly connected. The ‘actions’ of these other agents determine (in a probabilistic way, modeled by Markovian kernels) which perception will occur in our focal agent. Once perception has happened, our agent choses one of its available actions (again following a probabilistic rule), and so perceptions and actions are continuously updated in the agent network.

Hoffman hopes that arbitrarily complex subjective experiences can be modeled as a dynamical process of such elementary action/perception events, and that integrated conscious subjects, such as human minds, can emerge in an understandable way from the combination of many elementary conscious agents. While the problem of combining elementary experiences to complex ones, as well as the problem of combining subjects, has not been solved in the present philosophy of mind, it can be mathematically shown that any subset of Hoffman’s conscious agents in the network can be consistently viewed as a single, complex ‘meta’ agent. Moreover, work on conscious agent theory has already led to some encouraging results, such as models of introspection, short- and long-term memory, attention, categorization and case-based planning.3 Hoffman is not only attempting to describe the cognitive abilities of sentient beings, but also to recreate our presently known physics of interacting objects in space-time, entirely within conscious agent theory. An impressive first result is that the quantum mechanical wave function of a free particle emerges from the interaction of two conscious agents.2

It is of course entirely possible that conscious agent theory in its specific present form will fail to deliver a satisfactory theory of consciousness. After all, such a theory would be expected to answer even questions that go beyond present science, such as why two entirely different chemical compounds have the same characteristic smell for humans. But even if such psycho-physical relations can be explained by the theory, its limits may eventually become apparent. For example, conscious agent networks have the computational power of a universal Turing machine and can therefore process information at the same level as any classical digital computer. However, if Nobel laureate Roger Penrose is right, human consciousness is non-algorithmic,4 and therefore cannot be modeled by a Turing machine.

Despite these possible drawbacks, Hoffman’s theory shows that mathematically precise models of mental processes are indeed possible and can lead to new insights. Obviously, such models do not solve the hard problem of consciousness: they just take certain elementary states of perception as a given, axiomatic fact. But they have the potential to describe the structure of conscious experience at a level of detail and rigor that would not be possible without using mathematics.

For me, being a physicist with the irresistible urge to understand the world in a precise and quantitative way, the insight that even a purely conscious universe can be studied by rigorous scientific methods was a game changer. I will therefore continue my idealistic experiment for the time being.



  1. Kastrup B. Why materialism is baloney: How true skeptics know there is no death and fathom answers to life, the universe, and everything. John Hunt Publishing; 2014 Apr 25.
  2. Hoffman DD, Prakash C. Objects of consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014 Jun 17; 5:577.
  3. Fields C, Hoffman DD, Prakash C, Singh M. Conscious agent networks: Formal analysis and application to cognition. Cognitive Systems Research. 2018 Jan 1; 47:186-213.
  4. Penrose R, Mermin ND. The emperor’s new mind: Concerning computers, minds, and the laws of physics.

Re-thinking identity: Children’s experiences of self

Re-thinking identity: Children’s experiences of self

Reading | Social Sciences

Donna Thomas, PhD | 2021-02-28


Dr. Thomas argues that children, before a conceptual, culture-bound notion of self is inculcated in them, have a more spontaneous, broader sense of identity that defies our current worldview. She argues that their more natural, fluid self is more conducive to overcoming the despair characteristic of our present situation, and that it has much to teach us about reality itself.

For Hannah Arendt (1971), theorizing can only arise ‘out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guidepost by which to take its bearings.’ Some scientists may disagree, as research that relies on the personal accounts of people is often regarded as poor academic practice. In the cartesian-dominated world of science, the business of social researchers is to capture and explain human experience, while attempting to justify its empirical validity. This is a grave task when the bar is set at replicability, measurability and an empiricism that relies on conditioned consensus. How can the immeasurable be measured? Social scientists interpret human experience through incidence of themes, linguistic analysis, stories and collective agreements; all through the lens of the researcher’s position—governed by the latest theoretical ideas—with each turn constructing, deconstructing, fragmenting and obliterating the self.

Despite Arendt’s concept of experiential authority appealing exclusively to political life, the social sciences run with the idea of lived experience as a valid source of knowledge. In this way, social realities, systems and what it means to be human can be understood through the stories that people tell. Arendt herself ambiguously classifies experience as collective, not something that can be gleaned through subject-object relations. Yet social researchers tend to assume a cartesian-subject as a source of epistemic authority in relation to self, others and the world. This subject is the ‘story-I,’ an apparent self that moves through chronological and spatial dimensions, an inner subject held in relation to outer objects; as Nietzsche posits (see Spivak, 1974), a specifically linguistic, figurative habit of immemorial standing, a self that is, in the Foucauldian sense, entangled in discourses that circumscribe and constrain who we are.

I have seen this happen recently with children who frequently have ‘non-ordinary’ experiences; children who have premonitions, talk with deceased relatives, engage with disembodied beings, visit alternative realities and can lucid-dream on command. Although these experiences are considered as ‘non-ordinary,’ they appear to carry a surprising ordinariness in the life-worlds of many children; children who are consistently silenced, ignored and, at worst, diagnosed for experiences that do not fit into the dominant cultural narrative. When I research with these children, I listen to their ‘story-I’s,’ which are filled with discourses of illness, shame and difference. Self is never considered beyond the story (see Aatolla, 2017 ). Yet, as these children show, self and experience appear to extend far beyond mainstream ideologies, the limitations of language and even past their own inner narrative worlds. Postmodern preoccupation with lived experience and narrative self pays little attention to the ‘I’ of experience—in terms of its ontological existence and epistemological authority.

Children have long been absent from studies concerned with the nature of self, world and experience, but they—children—are now bringing a very real challenge to our mainstream ideologies about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. Such concerns are normally reserved for adult academics, typically acted out in bodies of philosophical and scientific scholarship. There are lots of reasons given for the exclusion of children, such as their reliability as research informants and traditional child development theories concerned with ego (see Wilber, 2000 ). Yet children and young people have much to teach us about the nature of self and reality.

In the case of a recent pilot study we conducted, ontological questions began to arise from the experiences of children. Using self-inquiry research methods,* children witnessed their story-selves from what Albhari (2020) notes as an “aperspectival unconditioned awareness,” a witness-consciousness that is “diaphanous because, rather than being just another object to be found within the conscious field, it is the field of awareness itself” (p. 10 ). Their ‘non-ordinary’ experiences began to take on a logic in keeping with their direct experiences of self. Differences on the level of the ‘story-I’ collapsed between these children as they shifted into (what we called) a ‘knowing-I.’ Language became redundant in these research moments while silence, physiology and symbol became the main source of data.

By holding the cartesian-subject to speculation, we moved beyond the ‘story -I’ in our social research practice. The idea of conceptual experience was replaced by a more direct experiencing of self and reality. Children used metaphors to try to convey their experience of self beyond their ‘story-I.’ As Semino et al (2017) recognise in their work studying the language of the dying, metaphors are valuable for expressing and reinforcing different ways of making sense of our experiences. In the case of children in the study, metaphor supported how they represented an aspect of self as ‘trapped’ in bubbles or egos. Self ‘outside’ or ‘below the cover’ was experienced by children as ‘free,’ ‘natural’ and connected to other people and the world. The idea of ‘self’ enclosed in a ‘bubble’ was repeated on several occasions by children—as well as how a deeper self was hidden or underneath it. The bubble itself can be held to speculation, exploring what it is made of (more often than not, the bubble is itself a story). When participants shifted their epistemic position from ‘inside the bubble’ to beyond it, their sense of individuality and linear time began to dissolve.

The pilot study afforded opportunities to think about the nature of self, subjectivity and a spectrum of human experience that, as Roxburgh & Coe (2014) suggest, is very ordinary. One could argue against the value of distinguishing between subject and object on the level of social life. Retaining individual agency and our personal stories offer an anchor and a means for navigating social reality. Our stories are a way of affirming oneself in a time that interrogates identities and selves. Yet, we are a society in crisis, in a liminal space held between different accounts of the world. Part of this collective despair is rooted in the illusion of self. We need to return to metaphysical questions in social research as a means for attending to a world that is falling down. Adults may not be as psychologically prepared to see through the ‘story-I,’ whereas our younger generation appear to be naturally aligned to such ontological inquiry.

In line with Arendt’s appeal to the importance of experience in theoretical speculation, qualitative research in a different guise should be contributing to wider scientific and philosophical studies of reality. This could involve carrying out ontological excavations in social research practice, using interdisciplinary research methods and building philosophical propositions from the experiences of people. It requires all assumptions about the nature of reality and what it means to be human to be dropped; to have the courage to walk into the unknown with people and see every experience as ‘ordinary.’ And as we talk about blurring the boundaries between subject and object, larger boundaries between different academic disciplines need to be dissolved to address the unanswerable questions, the hard problem of consciousness and the mystery of being human.


* Self-enquiry is a practice associated with Eastern philosophical traditions (see Barua, 2015). More recently, self-enquiry processes have been used in western non-dual circles and teaching (see Spira, 2017) as a means for exploring self and promoting wellbeing. The concept of the ‘selfie’ is taken from the cultural phenomenon of using digital technology to capture images of the self. While “selfies have been observed in relation to narcissism and self-promoting behaviours” (Choi & Bhem-Morowitz, 2018), using the concept to facilitate a deeper enquiry into the nature of self and non-ordinary experiences, has been useful with children and young people.



Arendt to McCarthy, May 28 1971, Between Friends. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, ed. Carol Brightman (New York: Hartcourt Brace, 1995).

Nietzche cited in Spivak GC (1974) Translator’s preface. In: Derrida J (ed.) and Spivak GC (trans.) Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. ix–xc.

Aaltola E (2019) Confronting suffering with narrative theory, constructed selfhood, and control: Critical perspectives by Simone Weil and Buddhist metaphysics. Journal of Disability & Religion 23: 227–250.

Wilber, K, (2000) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Shambala Publications. Boston.

Albhari M (2019) Perennial Idealism: A Mystical Solution to the Mind-Body Problem. Philosophers Imprint, 19 (44).

Semino, E. Demjen, Z. Hardie, A. Payne S. and Rayson, P. (2018). Metaphor, Cancer and the End of Life: A Corpus-Based Study. Routledge. New York.

Roxburgh E. and Roe C. (2014). Reframing voices and visions using a spiritual model. An interpretative phenomenological analysis of anomalous experiences in mediumship. Mental Health, Religion and Culture. 17  ( 6 ). 641-653.

Barua A (2016) The Silences of Ramana Maharshi: Self-enquiry and Liberation in Shikhya Yoga and Advaita Vedanta. Religions of South Asia 9 ( 2 ), 186-207.

Spira R (2017) The Nature of Consciousness. Essays on the unity of mind and matter. Shambala: Oxford.

Choi G and Behm-Morawitz E (2018) Teach me about yourself(ie): Exploring selfietakers’ technology usage and digital literacy skills. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 7 ( 3 ), 345–360.

What is consciousness?

What is consciousness?

Reading | Neuroscience

dr. Gerald Woerlee | 2021-02-19


Consciousness is more fundamental than, and precedes, higher-level mental activity such as thoughts and emotions. Therefore, it is possible that consciousness—as a kind of primary ‘operating system’—is present even in the complete absence of recognizable mental activity, argues dr. Woerlee with the authority of an anesthesiologist. We may thus be conscious even during states of seeming unconsciousness, which is relevant for metaphysics—such as idealism—that consider consciousness fundamental.

Consciousness is a much used and abused term, as is clearly revealed by the differing descriptions of consciousness as a phenomenon. Such imprecision is a major barrier to any real understanding of the nature of consciousness. Dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of consciousness even perpetuate this imprecision:

[Consciousness] Is the state of knowing what goes on around one… (Webster Dictionary 1991)

[Consciousness means being] Inwardly sensible or aware… (Shorter Oxford Dictionary 1956)

An extensive review by the neuroscientist Adam Zeman defined consciousness as several states: consciousness as a waking state, consciousness as mind, consciousness as experience, and self-consciousness (Zeman 2001).

The first definition only defines consciousness as knowing and perceiving the external world, while the second defines it as being aware of self, while the third series of definitions is so comprehensive as to be unusable. These definitions actually only define the manifestations of consciousness, such as awareness of self and external perception. They do not explain the nature of consciousness. Definitions such as the above are extensively discussed in a review article entitled Consciousness, by Adam Zeman (2001), as well as in the very readable book, Consciousness: An introduction by Susan Blackmore (2004). Here we read extensive explanations of states of consciousness, manifestations of consciousness, and theories of consciousness. Yet, even Susan Blackmore’s book ends with the revealing question: “But what is consciousness?” So it is worthwhile to examine this much used and abused term to provide some clarity and precision.


Medical definitions of consciousness

Physicians, and especially anesthesiologists, are practical people. They recognize the presence or absence of consciousness, and define the level of consciousness with various systems, because this can be used as a guide to patient management. The oldest methods were definitions using specific terms:

  • Obtunded consciousness: is a reduced level of consciousness.
  • Somnolent: a somnolent person is excessively sleepy, manifests minimal to no spontaneous activity, responds to calling their name, and responds to external stimuli with incoherent mumblings and uncoordinated actions.
  • Stupor: a person in a stupor is stuporose. A stuporose person only responds to shouting their name, repeated shaking, and reflex reactions to pain. The level of consciousness of a “deeply stuporose” person is even more obtunded. A deeply stuporose person does not respond to shouting or shaking, and only reacts to pain with reflex movements. These are reflex reactions to pain such as withdrawing, grimacing, etc. These reactions are quite distinct from directed responses to pain.
  • Coma: a person in a coma is comatose. A comatose person does not respond in any way to shaking, shouting, or even intense pain. They also may not manifest other basic brainstem reactions such as gagging in response to stimulating the back of the throat (gag reflex), their pupils may not respond to light (pupillary reflex), they may not close their eyes in response to touching the cornea (corneal reflex), or respond to stimulating their bronchi with a suction tube (cough reflex).

These older definitions have given way to the more precise Ramsay score (Ramsay 1974), and the EMV (Eyes, Movement, Verbal) score. Nonetheless, all these scores rely on physical movements and speech to infer the presence of consciousness. Yet people can be fully conscious even when unable to manifest any signs of consciousness.


Conscious while appearing unconscious

There are multiple situations where people manifest no signs of consciousness even though they are fully conscious and aware. Three examples of consciousness while appearing unconscious are the effects of the drug curare, the “locked-in” syndrome and lucid dreaming.


Curare, and drugs with the same effects as curare, are used by anesthesiologists every day as part of standard general anesthesia techniques. A sufficiently high dose of curare causes total paralysis of all muscles of the body except those of the bowels, heart and air passages of the lungs. The muscles of breathing are also paralyzed, which is quite lethal, so patients receiving such higher dose of curare are attached to a respirator, which mechanically inflates and deflates the lungs while the drug is active. All patients receiving such doses of curare as part of an anesthetic are administered drugs to ensure loss of consciousness, and other drugs to deaden the pain of surgery. This is everyday work for anesthesiologists all over the world, and also explains the various types of anesthetic awareness (see Chapter 10 in Woerlee 2020)

But a person administered high doses of curare, or curare-like drugs, is fully conscious and aware, with all mental faculties functioning normally. Such paralyzed persons are just unable to breath or move a single muscle. This reveals the above-mentioned scoring systems to be useless in some situations.

“Locked-in” syndrome

The locked-in syndrome is a devastating result of neurological disorders causing damage to that part of the midbrain called the “pons” (Dolfus 1990). These patients are unable to breathe, to move, and appear unconscious. Yet they are conscious, with possession of their normal mental faculties, even though they are generally unable to signal the fact of consciousness; a dreadful situation, and very vividly described by a recovered patient (Chisholm 2005).

Lucid dreaming

During REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, all the muscles of the body are paralyzed except for the muscles of respiration, heartbeat, bladder and bowels. Yet, instead of sleeping and dreaming, some people are fully awake, although paralyzed and unable to move their bodies or speak. This is lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreams typically only occur during REM sleep. During such dreams, people realize they are dreaming and can even control the content of their dreams to some extent. These are very vivid and often profound experiences whose properties consist of: “full awareness of the dream state, awareness of the possibility of making free decisions, clear consciousness of the dreamer, perception by all senses, full memory of waking life, full memory of all lucid dream experiences in the waking state and in the lucid dream state, awareness of the meaning of symbols” (Holzinger 2006). It is during these lucid dreams that some people experience flying dreams or out-of-body experiences. Not only do people undergoing lucid dreams realize they are dreaming, but they can signal the fact they are dreaming. They do so by means of moving their eyes in a prearranged manner, so as to generate signals on recordings of eye muscle electrical activity, or electroencephalographic activity, in response to pre-arranged light or sound signals applied when they are in REM sleep (Holzinger 2006, LaBerge 2010, Voss 2009). Unlike other dreams, self-reflection is present during lucid dreams (LaBerge 2010).


The body is the support system of the brain

This also raises the question of where consciousness originates. Many, many medical phenomena such as amputations, artificial organs, medical techniques of feeding, etc., all indicate and prove that the manifestation of consciousness is intimately tied to the brain, and the brainstem in particular. The medical evidence for this is so vast that I will not enter into it; suffices to indicate a brief review in one book (see Chapter 2 in Woerlee 2005).

The most dramatic evidence for this reality was provided by early clinical reports of severely brain damaged people whose bodies were kept alive, even though their brains were decomposing within their skulls. The results of post-mortem examinations of the brains of some of these people can only be described as dramatic. I quote two examples:

This can be best demonstrated in slides derived from the brain of a 6 year-old girl suffering from tubercular meningitis (Case 1, Table 1). Artificial respiration was necessary two weeks after commencement of the disease, yet the general condition grew worse in the following 9 days and she died two months later. As far as we could ascertain the brain had been dead for two months before the heart stopped. In this period of deanimation necrotic brain substance leaked through burrholes made in the skull. (Kramer 1963)

The following was one of the findings of the post-mortem examinations, as revealed by the general description of the brains of these people after death:

The consistency of the brain is always very weak and the weakening may proceed to such an extent that the brain substance is almost liquid. The colour is a disgusting mixture of grey, green and brown. (Kramer 1963)

The medical record of this unfortunate girl, as well as the examinations of others whose bodies were kept alive and functioning for several weeks after brain death, revealed several important points. They were not sedated nor paralyzed, yet they were very definitely unresponsive and unconscious; they did not breathe, and their brains were dead and decomposing long before the rest of their bodies died (Kramer 1963).

The brains and brainstems of these unfortunate persons were very clearly dead, and they manifested absolutely no signs of consciousness, such as speech or voluntary movement, even though their bodies were capable of movement. Evidence from subsequent brain death studies (Wijdicks 2008), and lines of evidence from other disorders ranging from shooting in the head, blows on the head, etc., all confirm the findings of Dr. Kramer and indicate that the body is no more than the support system for the brain and brainstem, which are the parts of the body needed for consciousness to manifest in any way.


How much brain is needed?

Anencephaly and hydrancephaly are two tragic situations revealing the minimal brain structures needed for consciousness to manifest.

Anencephaly is a condition of babies born without a top of the skull and scalp above the level of the eyes, and without a brain. Such children usually die shortly after birth. However, some are born with a brainstem and thalamus, and some of these survive for several days while manifesting consciousness—defined as waking, sleeping and responses to touch (Nielson 1949, Luyendijk 1992).

Hydranencephaly is a condition of babies born with a normal head, but without brain tissue above the brainstem and thalamus, except some vestigial other brain tissue. Studies of such children reveal varying levels of consciousness—defined as waking, sleeping and responding to stimuli. Other levels of mental development in these children depend upon the amount of other brain tissue (Shewmon 1999).

Studies of these unfortunate children, brain death, and studies of animal brains reveal that brainstem function is required for consciousness to manifest in humans or animals. Furthermore, many animal and human studies reveal the brainstem to be a primary integrator of responses to external perceptions and strongly suggest its role as a possible generator of consciousness (Merker 2007).


How to view consciousness?

From a purely materialist point of view, many medical and biological studies of consciousness indicate that the brainstem is the generator of consciousness. Or from another viewpoint, the brainstem is the conduit of consciousness. But one thing is certain: no brainstem means no consciousness. So how can consciousness be understood in relation to these facts? A statement from the Canadian neurologist Jodie Gawryluk reveals a very insightful observation:

wakefulness refers to the sub-state that permits open eyes and a degree of motor arousal (i.e. wakefulness defines the level of consciousness); awareness refers to the sub-state that enables experience of thoughts, memories, and emotions (i.e. awareness defines the content of consciousness). Although wakefulness and awareness are intimately connected—in general, one has to be awake to be aware—it is possible to identify circumstances under which they are dissociated (Gawryluk 2010)

Put simply, this and all preceding discussions reveal three essential points:

  1. Consciousness is necessary for the attributes of mind, such as awareness, sensation, personality, intellect, memory and emotion to manifest.
  2. Wakefulness is a description of the level of consciousness enabling attributes of mind to manifest.
  3. Millennia of practical observation and decades of neurological studies reveal that the neuroanatomical and neurochemical structure of the brainstem are required for consciousness to manifest. Brain structures above the brainstem are required for the higher-level attributes of mind to manifest.
  4. Awareness, or rather the perception of stimuli, can be dissociated from consciousness and mind. The brainstem is the primary integrator of perceptions and responses to external and internal stimuli, and such awareness of stimuli can occur without consciousness (Merker 2007). For example, think of autonomic responses to sound, light, pain and touch in unconscious persons.


So what is consciousness?

It is evident from the above discussion that consciousness is not the same thing as awareness of self, awareness of stimuli, personality, intellect, memory, emotion or any other higher-level mental function. The latter is mind, but mind comes on top of consciousness, which may be present even in the absence of mind. The other way around, however, is not possible: mind presupposes consciousness, for the latter is that incredible ‘something’ making mental activity possible. Wakefulness defines merely the level of consciousness. Without consciousness, the body manifests no properties of mind, because an unconscious person manifests no properties of mind such as personality, memory, intelligence and emotions. Consciousness enables these attributes, depending upon the level of wakefulness, and is something very different from these attributes of the mind (Gawryluk 2010, Greenfield 2002).

In this context, consciousness can be viewed analogously to a computer operating system. This metaphor is revealing. It tells us what consciousness is not, and reveals the facilitating and basic role of consciousness in the functioning of mind. There is more: newly born human babies, as well as the newly born form of all animals, are conscious at birth and immediately manifest species-specific, unlearned, and therefore clearly inborn, behavior patterns. This indicates the very real possibility that the neurochemical and anatomical structures related to consciousness are ‘hardwired’ in the very structures of the brainstem and brain.


What does this all mean, and what next?

Consciousness is best viewed as a sort of ‘operating system’ whose manifestations require the ‘hardwired’ neurochemical and anatomical structures of the brainstems of animals and humans, while wakefulness defines the level—or enables the properties—of mind. This concept does not answer the question of the fundamental nature of consciousness. Nonetheless, this defines the neurochemical and anatomical substrate required for the manifestation of consciousness, as well as defining what consciousness is, and is not. This makes any discussion of consciousness more directed.

The physical substrate enabling any manifestation of a conscious mind is clear. Consciousness may indeed be no more than a product of complex neurochemical and neurological activity in the brainstem. But this can only be considered an alternative explanation, because it does not exclude other explanations.

For example, Cartesian dualism is an alternative explanation of consciousness and mind propounded by major religions, and almost universal popular thought for the last 4,500 years. It proposes an immaterial and extracorporeal conscious mind controlling the body (see also pages 65-77 in Blackmore 2004). In this explanation, the brainstem is the material conduit for the manifestation of consciousness by the extracorporeal immaterial mind on this physical world. However, evidence indicates that this concept is no more than an inconsistent, ancient belief system (Woerlee 2020).

There are other alternative explanations of consciousness, such as idealism, panpsychism, emergentism, etc. Other concepts exist, or may come into being. Nonetheless, all such concepts of the phenomenon of consciousness are subject to the same burden of proof, in that they must be consistent with observed reality.

Summing up, achieving any understanding of the mystery of consciousness is only possible by adequate definition and delimitation of what is meant by the term “consciousness.”



  • Blackmore S, (2004), Consciousness. An Introduction. Oxford University Press, England, ISBN 019515343X.
  • Chisholm N, Gillett G, (2005), The patient’s journey: Living with locked-in syndrome. British Medical Journal, 331: 94-97.
  • Dollfus P, et al, (1990), The locked-in syndrome: A review and presentation of two chronic cases. Paraplegia, 28: 5-16.
  • Gawryluk JR, et al, (2010), Improving the clinical assessment of consciousness with advances in electrophysiological and neuroimaging techniques. BMC Neurology, 10: 11.
  • Holzinger B, et al, (2006), Psychophysiological correlates of lucid dreaming. Dreaming, 16: 88-95.
  • Greenfield S, (2002), Mind, brain and consciousness. British Journal of Psychiatry, 181: 91-93.
  • Kramer W, (1963), From reanimation to deanimation. (Intravital death of the brain during artificial respiration). Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 39:139-153.
  • LaBerge S, (2010), Signal-verified lucid dreaming proves that REM sleep can support reflective consciousness. International Journal of Dream Research, 3: 26-27.
  • Luyendijk W, Treffers PDA, (1992), The smile in anencephalic infants. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 94: Supp. 1: 113-117.
  • Merker B, (2007), Consciousness without a cerebral cortex: a challenge for neuroscience and medicine. Behaviourial and Brain Sciences, 30: 63-81.
  • Nielson JM, Sedgwick RP, (1949), Instincts and emotions in an anencephalic monster. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 110: 387-94.
  • Shewmon DA, et al, (1999), Consciousness in congenitally decorticate children: developmental vegetative state as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 41: 364-374.
  • Wijdicks EFM, Pfeifer EA, (2008), Neuropathology of brain death in the modern transplant era. Neurology, 70: 1234-1237.
  • Woerlee GM, (2005),. Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near-death Experiences. Published Prometheus, USA, ISBN 1591022835.
  • Woerlee GM, (2020), Anesthesia & the Soul. An ebook available at
  • Zeman A, (2001), Consciousness. Brain, 124: 1263-1289.

The physics of first-person perspective: An interview with physicist Dr. Markus Müller

The physics of first-person perspective: An interview with physicist Dr. Markus Müller

Reading | Physics

Markus Müller, PhD | 2021-01-20

MarkusMuller INTERVIEW scaled

After Dr. Müller’s extraordinary presentation during Essentia Foundation’s 2020 online work conference, we, the editors, felt the need to interview him and explore his ideas further. If you haven’t watched his presentation already, we recommend you do so before reading on. The video is linked below.

Essentia Foundation: Could you briefly summarize your interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (QM), and perhaps relate it to QBism and Relational Quantum Mechanics?

My goal is not to interpret QM—at least not in the usual sense of finding an intuitive explanation for what is ‘really going on in the quantum world.’ Instead, I see QM as one motivation (among many) to drop our intuitive, traditional notion of ‘world’ altogether, and to regard it as only approximately true. My work implements this idea in a particular, mathematically rigorous way without assuming the validity of QM. It then turns out that some aspects of QM appear naturally as predictions.

In this approach, quantum states turn out to play a similar role as they do in QBism: they are nothing but a catalog of probabilities of private future experiences (‘outcomes’) of agents. But there are two essential differences to QBism. First: QBists interprets these probabilities as subjective beliefs (Bayesian betting probabilities), whereas in my approach they are objective but private chances—they say how likely an agent is going to see something later, regardless of its beliefs. Second, QBists place a lot of emphasis on the notion of an agent’s ‘action’: the agent can decide to do something, and the world kicks back. In my approach, the notion of ‘agent’ is a more abstract, structural notion of ‘self,’ and its ability to decide and perform actions is seen as irrelevant for my purpose.


Essentia Foundation: You motivate your essentially idealist view with some curious thought experiments. Yet, we now have overwhelming experimental confirmation of some predictions of quantum mechanicsnamely, Bell’s and Leggett’s inequalitiesthat seem to refute the notion of an objective physical world describable with definite quantities. Could you comment on what these experiments may mean or imply, in the context of your views?

I believe that both the (experimentally confirmed) violation of Bell’s inequalities and the curious thought experiments hold the same message: trouble for the ‘container’ view.

By ‘container view’ I mean the following intuitive picture: that there exists an objective, material world that evolves in time according to physical laws, containing us as material agents. Relativistic peculiarities notwithstanding, at every time, this world is in some definite configuration in some sense. We, as agents, can make predictions by, first, modelling the evolution of this world, and then by locating ourselves inside this world (“oh, I’m here on Earth, in the Netherlands, hence modelling the motion of the planets according to mechanical laws, I can predict that I will see Jupiter here on the sky tomorrow!”).

Bell’s theorem tells us that this container view cannot be upheld in all cases, unless we are willing to pay a prize: we must be willing to give up either our idea of locality or our idea of what it means for the world to be in some definite ‘configuration.’ If you opt for the first possibility, then you may be a Bohmian: you say that particles interact faster than light, but in a way that is in principle invisible. If you opt for the second possibility, then you may be an Everettian: the configuration of the world is itself a wavefunction (intuitively interpreted as some kind of ‘parallel-worlds’-entity), but then you have to work hard to relate this to the empirical fact that we always see single definite outcomes that are very well characterized by the laws of probability theory.

An obvious way out—for which I argue—is to give up the container view altogether, at least fundamentally. For some reason, this seems to be psychologically difficult. Hence, if the quantum puzzles were the only ones we encounter in physics or philosophy, then one might well choose to be a Bohmian or an Everettian and enjoy the resulting psychological comfort. But as I argue in my work, there are many more challenges to this container view than just quantum mechanics; for example, the puzzles and thought experiments that I have mentioned in my talk, which arguably render the container view methodologically inadequate. I believe that there is something important about our world and our place in it that we have so far failed to grasp.


Essentia Foundation: You have alluded to the many-worlds Everettian view. Indeed, some physicists try to hold on to an objective physical world by postulating a practical infinity of parallel physical universes popping into existence every fraction of a second. Could you comment on why this supposedly saves physical realism, and why you think it doesn’t work?

Let me clarify this: I believe that there are immensely important aspects of ‘physical realism’ that we have to defend at all cost because they constitute the basis of science. These include the strive for logical and mathematical rigor, for stringent experimental test whenever possible, and for Occam’s-razor-like simplicity. In this sense, I am a die-hard ‘realist.’

But the word ‘realism’ is ambiguous and overloaded. In particular, these important principles of science are sometimes unduly identified with a very specific notion of realism: with something close to the ‘container view’ described above; as if the only possibility to be rational would be to hold a naïve view of a world that unfolds like a stage play!

Given the puzzles of quantum mechanics, the many-worlds view that you have mentioned in your question aims at telling a coherent story about the quantum world in terms of this container or stage play view. Does this Everettian interpretation succeed in doing so? Yes, absolutely! But the problem is that you can make every worldview consistent with modern physics if you stretch it far enough. Do you dislike the idea of many worlds and would like to hold on to a single-world classical picture? Then pick Bohmian mechanics! Do you prefer to abandon any notion of randomness altogether? Then pick ‘t Hooft’s superdeterministic cellular-automaton interpretation! Pick whatever you like—the experimental predictions will be identical, and nobody can prove you wrong.

Given this situation, I think that the only reliable way to understand what we can really learn from QM—what it tells us about the world—is to disregard interpretations and look at actual scientific practice. There, we find that quantum states are nothing but our calculational tool to determine probabilities of measurement outcomes—and all we ever see are these outcomes. And it turns out that these probabilities have surprising properties. For example, they violate Bell’s inequalities. The simplest logical conclusion to me is to see this as a hint that the world is, first, fundamentally probabilistic in some sense, and second, that we cannot consistently regard the outcomes of our measurements as predetermined in any way that would deserve this name.


Essentia Foundation: You make some effort to explain that the emergent world perceived by a first observersay, Alicewill converge with that of a second observerBobvisible in Alice’s world. In other words, the world within which Bob is perceived by Alice will tend to be consistent with Bob’s own world. This suggests that you, contrary to solipsism, acknowledge the existence of multiple observers conscious of their respective worlds, and that the presence of an observer can be perceived in the emergent world of another observer. Is this correct?

This is largely correct and well-formulated. In particular, it is true that my view does not amount to solipsism. I also completely agree with your statement that “the presence of an observer can be perceived in the emergent world of another observer.”

There is, however, some fine print to this. For example, when you say that I “acknowledge the existence of multiple observers,” one has to guard against the reflex to associate the notion that ‘X exists’ with the mental picture that X has a time and a place where it sits, and a world in which it is embedded. This is exactly what is fundamentally denied in my approach.

For example, suppose that you (Bernardo) meet a friend (Charlie) on Christmas eve. There is an ‘observer state’—an abstract structure B—that describes all of your self (your conscious or unconscious memory, your experiences etc.) at that very moment. There is another observer state C that does so for Charlie’s self. But both B and C are simply abstract structures that do not have a time or place ‘where they sit.’ It may be that B contains the experience of seeing, for example, a calendar that shows ‘Dec 24, 2020,’ and a watch that shows ‘20:00’—together with a mental model of the room that supposedly surrounds your perceived body. But B itself doesn’t have a place or time. And C also doesn’t. The block of biological matter that you perceive in front of you is not identical to C, but simply a (probabilistically accurate!) representation of C, similarly as six eggs in a box are a representation of the number 6 (as an abstract structure), but are not equal to it.

My approach relies on the notion of ‘observer states’—that is, momentary ‘modes of being’ in some sense—not of ‘observers.’ Being in state B means feeling like Bernardo in this room on Christmas Eve at 20:00, and it means being in some other state B’ next that is probabilistically determined by B (and with high probability will still feel like Bernardo in this room on Christmas Eve, with small changes). But there is no fundamental notion of ‘being Bernardo.’ And this has surprising consequences. It may happen that, in the extremely distant subjective future, you will actually have ended up in observer state C—meaning that you will feel like Charlie on Christmas Eve 2020. Then we have a situation like in the movie Back to the Future, where after time travel Marty McFly runs into his older future self. Does this involve one observer or two? It depends on how you count.

In summary: my approach does not amount to solipsism, but it also does not make specific claims about the ‘existence of multiple observers’—it rather describes a counterintuitive ontology where this notion dissolves in some sense, and only momentary notions of ‘observer state’ have fundamental relevance.


Essentia Foundation: Fascinating. But doesn’t this mean that there must be some ontic contextinaccessible as it may bein which Bob’s very existence translates into information present in Alice’s world? If not, in what sense would your views differ from solipsism?

Let me explain one aspect that differentiates my view from solipsism. Instead of Alice and Bob, let me again talk about Bernardo and Charlie on Christmas Eve.

Suppose that you (Bernardo) decide to hit Charlie hard in the face—at the very moment when you are in observer state B and Charlie in C. Now, in my view, this has the consequence that somebody really has to suffer. Namely, it means that if one is in observer state C, then one has a high probability of transitioning into some state C’ next that is associated with an experience of pain. Now, claims of this form would certainly not make sense in any kind of solipsistic worldview (if nobody but me exists, then nobody else will suffer from my actions).

This follows from my theorem on consistency: asymptotically, other observers that you see in your emergent world will see the same emergent world. So, insofar as you can claim to have causal influence on some aspects of your world, this directly translates into causal influence on the first-person experiences of other observers. Note that this is true despite the fact that observer states B and C do not have a common time or place where they would sit.

This is a quite fascinating and counterintuitive form of agency or causality as predicted from my approach: everybody is dreaming their own dream, and there is no notion of ‘external time’ that would even allow us to say that we dream ‘at the same time.’ Nonetheless, our dreams are determined by statistical laws that lead to their correlation, which allows us to meet up.


Essentia Foundation:  Clear. Given this, how would you define what matter is, as opposed to how it behaves?

In my view, the notion of ‘matter’ is a particular way to conceptualize certain persistent patterns that permeate an observer’s emergent external world.


Essentia Foundation:  One of the most vexing problems in cosmology today is the so-called fine-tuning: the fundamental constants of nature are exquisitely tuned to the exact values they would have to have if complexityand, therefore, life itselfwere to exist. Yet there is no physical reason for why they should have the values they have. What is arguably the best answer to this challenge todayan evolutionary theory of parallel universesis still uncomfortably speculative and lacking in empirical evidence. However, it would seem that, in your approach, the problem disappears altogether. Could you comment on it?

I have not thought enough about this particular problem (fine-tuning) to give you a definite answer, and I do not know enough about cosmology to give you an answer on the spot. But what I can tell you is that approaches like mine challenge the basic terminology that we are used to apply when thinking about such problems in the first place.

Our usual way of addressing cosmological problems begins with something close to what I have called the ‘container view’ above: with the assumption that there exists a single world that is ‘really actualized’ in contrast to all other conceivable worlds (which are not actualized), and everything that ‘really exists’ is contained in it. This world may be very large, and it may perhaps even deserve the name ‘multiverse’ if we think of it as consisting somehow of compartments that do not interact. Such a worldview invites us to ask, intuitively and automatically: Why has this particular world been actualized and not another one? Could our world be just one among many, and if so, how could we find empirical evidence for or against the existence of those other worlds (or about the other compartments of our hypothesized multiverse)? Can we think of ‘actualization of a world’ as a physical process in some sense?

My approach denies the very metaphysical basis of this view. It views questions like ‘does conceivable world W really exist?’ as similarly empty as ‘how many angels fit on the head of a pin?’ Instead of a one-world or many-worlds theory, it is fundamentally a ‘zero-worlds theory.’ It regards the likelihood of first-person experiences as the primary notion, and the notion of an external world as a derived or emergent concept—a remarkable and important concept (a lot of effort in my work goes into proving that such a concept is in fact predicted by my approach), but not a fundamental one. Hence, instead of asking ‘why does the really actualized world have property X?’ it invites us to ask: ‘What are the typical properties of an observer’s emergent external world, according to the fundamental probability rule that governs its first-person experiences?’ Part of the answer is: such a world will typically appear to have begun in a state of low entropy, predicting a property of our world that standard cosmological thinking would regard as remarkably atypical.


Essentia Foundation: What do you regard as the necessary theoretical and experimental next steps to further substantiate and advance your views?

Most, if not all, novel approaches in fundamental physics currently face the problem that they are experimentally extremely hard to test. This includes, for example, the different proposals that we have for a theory of quantum gravity, or approaches aiming for unification like string theory. Any experimental deviation from our established theories supporting such novel approaches would represent a breakthrough worth a Nobel prize.

Since my approach aims at addressing a class of questions that can be regarded as even more fundamental, it is necessarily even further removed from the regime of physics that involves the concrete prediction of quantities like particle cross section or decay probabilities. Thus, I see currently no hope of any experimental test. But this is not due to a problem with my approach, but due to the nature of the questions that it (or any comparable approach) intends to address.

However, I do see the possibility of an indirect test: as I have already indicated in my paper, I think that some aspects of quantum theory can perhaps be understood as generic consequences of approaches like mine. But there is quite some theoretical work left to be done to further substantiate this idea. To do so, I also need to address one particular aspect of my approach that currently renders it necessarily incomplete: it implicitly assumes that observers never lose any information (in some formal sense—see my paper). As I already acknowledge in my paper, dropping this assumption and reformulating my theory accordingly is an important improvement to be implemented.

Finally, and most importantly, I would like to get more into discussions with my colleagues, if only to obtain important criticism and to learn where my views may go wrong. This is not always easy, since my work neither falls into the traditional scope of physics nor into that of philosophy.

Hello, we are Essentia Foundation

Hello, we are Essentia Foundation

Reading | Editorial

The editors | 2021-01-16

About us scaled

In this inaugural editorial, we introduce ourselves to you by discussing our perspective on an urgent challenge facing our society, our vision for how to address this challenge, and how we hope to contribute to the solution.

It is with sober optimism in these difficult times that we, Essentia Foundation, introduce ourselves to you. Essentia has been created to address one of the least discussed—yet most significant—challenges facing our society today: the now-clear fallacies of our materialist worldview, according to which matter is primary and mind secondary. In doing so, we also hope to articulate a more coherent, parsimonious and empirically adequate alternative: idealism, also known as nondualism.

A remnant of a more intellectually naïve and unsophisticated past, metaphysical materialism now rides on intellectual habit and unexamined assumptions. Being the reigning worldview in our society, it subtly validates and amplifies some of our most dysfunctional behaviors, such as consumerism, environmental destruction, corruption, conflict, mechanistic medicine, etc. If truly embodied, materialism can also contribute to our most dreaded inner states, such as existential anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness associated with clinical depression.

We at Essentia Foundation are committed to truth. We believe that, if there were good objective reasons to consider materialism the most plausible metaphysics, we should bite the bullet and live with the implications. But on the basis of the latest scientific evidence and analytic reasoning, the contrary is arguably the case: evidence from neuroscience and foundations of physics is now contradicting some of the foundational tenets of materialism. Careful reasoning in analytic philosophy is also showing that materialism may be incoherent, based on fundamental logical fallacies. So why should we accept its grim implications? Why should we live according to a demonstrably fallacious worldview?

In his magnificent book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—perhaps the most important volume of the 20th century—Thomas Kuhn has shown that, historically, we are anything but objective when it comes to our worldview. The latter is defined more by a set of inherited values, beliefs and assumptions than reason and evidence. Looking back to our ancestors, we have no difficulties acknowledging this. For instance, we think patronizingly of 17th-century scientists, who thought electrostatic attraction was caused by an invisible elastic fluid called ‘effluvium.’ What a nonsensical view of things, isn’t it? But when it comes to ourselves, here in the early 21st century, we cannot imagine that we are as deluded as our ancestors; that, just like them, we can’t see past our own paradigmatic values, beliefs and assumptions.

Essentia Foundation will seek to help us see beyond the materialist paradigm. Indeed, to future generations, our present mistakes will look as silly and incomprehensible as ‘effluvium.’ Two of these mistakes will seem particularly confounding to them: our insistence on replacing reality with a mere description of reality, and our disposition to acknowledge appearances while denying the thing that projects these appearances in the first place. Let us look into these more closely.

Early scientists counted on their senses to study the world: the things they could consciously see, hear, smell, taste and touch around them. Their world, just like yours and mine, was thus a world of mental qualities: colors, sounds, flavors, aromas and textures. At some point, they realized that it was very useful to use numbers to describe the relative differences between mental qualities: to say, for instance, that a feather weighed 50 grams while a heavy piece of luggage weighed, say, 50,000 grams. This represented the birth of quantitative science, in which numbers and their relationships are extremely powerful tools to describe the world and predict its behavior.

But then something strange happened: some scientists and philosophers—the distinction wasn’t clear at the time—started maintaining that only the numbers exist, which they called ‘matter.’ For them, only the description of the world had standalone reality, while the qualities described in the first place were somehow secondary to the numbers, mysteriously created within people’s skulls. This was the birth of metaphysical materialism, which—in a self-evidently incoherent move—tries to magically pull the territory out of the map. Yet it stuck. Instead of acknowledging it has taken an early wrong turn, our paradigmatic thinking labels this wrong turn a ‘problem’—more specifically, the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’—and promises to somehow solve it one day.

Equally embarrassing is our paradigmatic insistence that appearances exist, but not the reality that projects—or appears according to—these appearances. For matter is but an appearance: it’s how the world presents itself to our observation, not necessarily what the world is in and of itself. Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer have made this abundantly clear already over two centuries ago, but our paradigmatic values, beliefs and assumptions are stronger than the iron-clad logic of our own sages. We say that matter is all there is, that it is the ‘thing-in-itself,’ instead of the mere appearance or representation of a deeper and more concrete reality.

Such a misunderstanding would be, well, understandable if nature weren’t putting evidence to the contrary right in front of our eyes—literally—every day: every time we look into the mirror, we see an appearance. But we know that ‘behind’ that appearance, in some sense, lies the thing-in-itself: our conscious inner life, our moods, thoughts, emotions, fantasies, aspirations, hopes, dreams, fears and desires. When we see tears flowing down our faces as we look into the mirror, we know that the tears are but the external appearance of the concrete inner reality of sorrow and despair. We know that material tears on a contorted material face aren’t all there is to the story, but merely the way a felt inner reality presents itself to external observation. And since our tears, faces and the rest of our bodies are made of the same atoms and force fields that constitute the rest of the observable universe, it is only reasonable to infer—as Schopenhauer did—that the rest of the universe, too, is but the external appearance of a deeper reality; perhaps a reality of inner feelings analogous to our own.

But instead, our paradigmatic thinking assumes that there is an arbitrary discontinuity in nature: in human beings, there is an inner mental reality of which matter is an appearance, alright; but when it comes to the inanimate universe—and perhaps most other living creatures as well—matter is the thing-in-itself. For us, in the early 21st century, there is nothing ‘behind’ the appearances; there is nothing that appears in the form of appearances, just hollow, phantasm-like appearances themselves, without inner essence. This is analogous to going to the cinema and acknowledging the existence of the images on the screen, while denying the reality of the projector by virtue of which the images exist. Erupting volcanoes, thunderstorms, exploding supernovas: we think of all these images as flat, hollow, without intrinsic meaning; they aren’t representations of a deeper reality, but mere phantasms without essence, zombies floating in thin air.

Perhaps future generations will dedicate entire fields of study in psychology, sociology, anthropology and the like, to trying to figure out how we could have gone so wrong; how we could be so blind, for so long, to the blatant incoherence of our own thinking. But for now, different action is called for: subjectively biased as even science and philosophy may have become—for they are the quintessential embodiment of the paradigm—reason and evidence should ultimately prevail, as they have in previous times. What we need is a constant, tireless, ever renewed articulation of the available reasoning and evidence, till they slowly start to percolate through the paradigmatic shield of our collective thinking. And once a critical mass of reason and evidence has come through, our understanding of the essence of ourselves and nature at large will undergo remarkable change; change that will bring us closer to truth and each other. This, in essence, is what Essentia Foundation tries to achieve.

But what will this new worldview look like? What are reason and evidence pointing to? As we hope to make clear over time with the material we will be publishing, there is a strong sense in which the precise opposite of what we think today is much more plausible: instead of matter being primary and mind secondary, we will find that mind—not your or my individual mind alone, but an extended form of mind underlying all nature, of which we are microscopic segments—is primary, matter being just an appearance of essentially mental processes. We will find that, when regarded from a particular perspective, mentation—the thing-in-itself—simply presents itself in the form we colloquially call ‘matter.’ Indeed, there is now robust, compelling scientific and philosophical evidence for this; evidence known in small specialist groups, but hardly made accessible to a wider public. Essentia Foundation will seek to eliminate this communication gap.

The journey ahead is long and difficult. But we believe that, with your help, our goals can be achieved within our own lifetimes. A brave new world will emerge from that: one less susceptible to consumerism and environmental destruction; to despair, loneliness and meaninglessness; to corruption, conflict and egotistic thinking; a world where we will more readily recognize our essential identity with each other and the rest of nature; where logic, reason and evidence will actually be logical, reasonable and evidentiary; where we will see through not only the paradigms of our ancestors, but also our own; in a word, a more mature world, closer to truth.

The journey has only just begun!

The Flip: Recalibrating the humanities and the sciences around extraordinary experiences

The Flip: Recalibrating the humanities and the sciences around extraordinary experiences

Seeing | Philosophy

There are extraordinary experiences that, although commonplace, contradict the current materialist metaphysics. This is what Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal argues in his presentation during Essentia Foundation’s 2020 online work conference. 

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Programs in the School of the Humanities and the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is also the Associate Director of the Center for Theory and Research and the Chair of the Board at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Jeff is the author of eight books, including, most recently, The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters (Penguin, 2020), where he envisions the future centrality and urgency of the humanities in conversation with the history of science, the philosophy of mind, and our shared ethical, political, and ecological challenges. He is presently working on a three-volume study of paranormal currents in the sciences, modern esoteric literature, and the hidden history of science fiction for the University of Chicago Press collectively entitled The Super Story: Science (Fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies. There he intuits and writes out a new emerging spectrum of superhumanities (in both senses of that expression). His full body of work can be seen at Prof. Kripal is a member of Essentia Foundation‘s Academic Advisory Board.